“The moon hangs over me as I sleep: eighty-one million million million tons above my head. And the earth, upon whose surface I lie like a speck of dust, hangs on to the moon as they swing around each other, reflecting each other’s reflected light, on their annual trip together around the sun. No other planet except Pluto has to support a satellite so large in proportion to its own size. The moon pulls the earth now toward the inside, now toward the outside of the smooth elliptical path traced by their common center of gravity, which lies some one thousand miles within the earth—three thousand miles moonward from our planet’s true center—veering around inside earth’s body as she makes her almost twenty-eight day-and-night spins within a single month-long circle of the moon. Spinning has made earth thick around the middle. Sun, moon, and planets tug at the bulge on her equator as if trying to bring it into the plane of her orbit, but she holds her angle, so that the rhythmic seasons continue to sweep over her, and her axis only wobbles in a slow circle, always 23.5 degrees from the vertical, her north pole pointing to one star after another, the equinoxes sliding slowly backward around the zodiac, coming full circle in twenty-six thousand years. Asleep and too small, I feel none of these pulls and tugs upon the earth. Only four times the diameter of the moon (but eighty-one times heavier), earth continues on her weaving, spinning, wobbling way, held on course by the sun’s great gravity.
Through the moon, when it approaches closest to the earth, there passes a delicate shiver, always the same. No one was aware of this until the astronauts left super-sensitive seismometers on the moon’s surface. Something inside her moves. She is not as dead as we thought. On her surface, however, except for an occasional soundless pock and puff of dust as a meteorite strikes her, nothing whatever happens. The astronauts’ footprints are still there in the moondust, and will be there in a million years.
As I sleep, the moon is tugging at everything on her side of the surface of the earth. She sucks on the very rocks. As she passes overhead the earth’s crust rises a few inches beneath her and is elsewhere compressed, kneaded as a cat kneads your stomach. The water level in wells far inland rises and falls in opposite phase to the tides of the sea. Moon and sun raise tide waves sometimes three miles high in the ionosphere. As the streams of conductive ions move through earth’s magnetic field, electric currents are induced, and attendant tides of magnetism, which for all I know are ebbing and flowing through my motionless body on the bed.
As I sleep, the solar wind is streaming out of the sun. The earth holds her magnetosphere before her like a shield. It streams out behind her like the garments of a mother in a hurricane. Except for a few hours at the full, when it passes through the earth’s magnetotail, the moon stands naked in the full blast, recording the sun’s history in her rocks, trailing behind her a cone of absence which may be the most nearly perfect vacuum in the solar system.
As I sleep, sun and moon—working together or at cross-purposes—are dragging on all the oceans of the earth, to their seamed and jagged depths, moving billions and billions of tons of water, creating the conditions for the world between the tides: that world that so possessed us through the long summer days, as we stood gazing out to sea, following the exhalation of the ebbing tide; or squatted over pools in the rock, looking down at the display of earth’s inexhaustible imagination: starfish, hermit crab, sea urchin, sponge, the delicate perilous tentacles of the sea anemone; or, suddenly noticing furtive fingers of sandy water coming and going under our feet, stood up and ran before the grumbling, rock-leaping mass of the tide’s return.
Tidal friction is slowing the earth down. The night grows longer. As she slows earth down, the moon, like a growing child, moves farther away.
I stir in my sleep. A tide of awakening, its advance edge bordered with birdsong, is moving over the continent. The sun, our only savior from entropy, slowly infuses its musical energy into everything on this side of the earth. Suddenly I feel like getting up, like going to work, like lifting up out of the mess of chaos some measure of order and beauty. If the weight of my body and the aimless drift of my psyche are overcome, it is a triumph of the sun. I sit up. I sing no hymn. I dress and go down to breakfast.
As I sit down, a photon of light, having wandered fifty million years finding its way from the sun’s hot heart to its photosphere, has sped in eight minutes from there to the earth and arrived at the gentle surface of a leaf. A molecule of chlorophyll is delicately enticing it into the dance of photosynthesis. I say no grace. I eat the sun with my toast. I breathe the labor of the leaves exhaled in oxygen.
As I lift my coffee cup, the sun lifts tons of water from the oceans into the sky. Air warmed at the equator rises and moves toward the poles, is cooled, moves down and under. Spinning within her envelope of air, the earth deflects the currents, sending the clouds in great white swirls across her face. As i swallow, curtains of rain are somewhere sweeping the earth. Parched soil, like a woman at last encountering love, is relaxing, absorbing, softening, beginning to feed the myriad seeds within her. I eat the earth with my egg. The white has the taste of the sea. I do not notice.
When I go to my study, the sun has arrived there before me. Summer sunlight rests quietly on the desk. Books about the solar system are scattered over it. I pull one toward me and open it to the photograph of the earth as seen from the moon. No wonder the moon circles around her, keeping its smooth side, sculptured by meteorites, always towards her, hiding its thick, rough back. The earth is beautiful—alive. Everything on her face is moving and changing in the delicacy, complexity, intelligence of her response to the sun. She is like Scheherazade telling endlessly diverting tales to the king (so that he will not kill her), while her little sister, the moon, with her expressionless face, sits by silently. The earth intercedes for us with the source of our life so that he will not kill us. Most of the time, I do not think about the earth.
She is wary with the sun, keeping her distance, neither too near nor too far, fending off his killing corpuscular radiation (the solar wind) with her magnetic field, filtering the blaze of his light through her atmosphere, selecting, storing, and releasing just those kinds and amounts of energy that will maintain our lives, keeping out lethal ultraviolet rays with a thin veil of ozone, incinerating like fleas the millions of meteorites that each day come hurtling in our direction. Protected by the earth, we live inside the sun: the solar wind—hot, ionized gas and its attendant magnetic fields, streaming radially out of the sun, thrown into a spiral by the sun’s rotation, traveling at an average speed of two hundred and fifty miles per second almost irrespective of distance from the sun (but subject to surges when faster streams, shot out by solar flares, overtake slower ones), filling interplanetary space to the outermost reaches of the solar system—is an attenuated extension of the sun’s corona, where, although the temperature is two million degrees Kelvin, the gas is so rarefied that you would freeze to death if you could go there with some shield to protect you from the direct light of the sun.
Sunlight rests upon my arm. A faint warmth penetrates my skin. A breeze from the window stirs the hairs on my arm. I cannot conceive of the sun. It is too bright, too great, maybe too intensely alive for me to encompass and comprehend, even in the elastic vessel of my imagination. If I try to take it into that space behind the solar plexus where we can feel and sense the life of a thing and not just take facts about it into our heads, it annihilates me. It flashes out in all directions beyond the bounds of my body.
I turn again to the photograph of the earth. You and I are in this picture. We were on the earth that day. Yet we cannot see ourselves, any more than I can see the bacteria on my arm—who, for all I know, may now be waking up, feeling the warmth of the sun, hearing something like the ripple of wind through a forest or a great field of wheat. To the earth, you and I are microorganisms. To the sun, we are viruses on a tick—or maybe even less: electrons or quarks.
I read the facts about the sun: if the earth were the size of an ordinary marble, the sun would be the size of a weather balloon large enough for a man to turn around in with arms outstretched. The sun radiates some hundred thousand tons of light per second. Its total energy output is 3.83 x 10^26 watts, of which the earth intercepts 2 x 10^17 watts, about half of which (that is, approximately one four-billionth of the energy streaming out of the sun) gets through the atmosphere. According to current theory, the source of this energy is nuclear fusion int he sun’s core: four protons (hydrogen nuclei) combine in a series of steps to make one atom of helium, with a loss of 0.7 per cent of the proton mass, which is converted to energy in accordance with Einstein’s equation, E=MC^2. If mass could be converted to energy with one hundred per cent efficiency (which it can’t), one gram of matter would be energetically equivalent to thirty million kilowatt hours, enough electric energy to keep an average home going for ten thousand years at the present annual rate of consumption. For every fusion of a new helium nucleus, two neutrinos (among other things) are released, for a total of 2 x 10^38 neutrinos per second. Having no electrical charge and negligible mass, neutrinos interact with hardly anything and so, unlike the photons of electromagnetic energy, which take millions of years to get out of the sun, they zip straight out from the core at the speed of light. Billions of them are passing through your body at this moment and straight on through the earth underneath you. (At the time of the writing of these books, however, attempts to detect the presence of the predicted numbers of neutrinos had been unsuccessful.) The sun has maintained essentially the same energy flow for about five billion years.
These enormous numbers zip through my head like neutrinos. In order to get some feeling for the sun I have to turn to Lewis Thomas:
Morowitz has presented the case, in thermodynamic terms, for the hypothesis that a steady flow of energy from the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space, by way of the earth, is mathematically destined to cause the organization of matter into an increasingly ordered state. The resulting balancing act involves a higher and higher complexity, and the emergence cycles for the storage and release of energy. In a nonequilibrium steady state, which is postulated, the solar energy would not just flow to the earth and radiate away; it is thermodynamically inevitable that it must rearrange matter into symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation. In such a system, the outcome is a chancy kind of order, always on the verge of descending into chaos, held taut against probability by the unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.
I look up. The book is now in shadow. The earth has moved. Afternoon sunlight now enters the southern windows and slants across the floor. Sunlight, slanting across a windowsill like this, or resting upon a wall, has sometimes rescued me (when i noticed it) from despair. Does the sun know what it’s doing? Could that which has lifted us up out of chaos be less intelligent, less conscious than we are? Is all this towering largesse—even prodigality—only a manifestation of automatic processes? Or do we suffer from a kind of chauvinism of scale, which blinds us to the presence of awareness in any creature much greater or smaller, much longer- or shorter-lived than ourselves?
We owe our lives to the sun. nothing in the facts of science contradicts this assertion. How is it, then, that we feel no gratitude?
I know this is a naive question. We hardly send a thank-you note to a ball of burning gas or a nuclear furnace. It is not only its greatness but also the prevailing world view that prevents me giving thanks (at least in public) to the sun. When I was a child, I looked at the stars, and the stars were looking back. That was the way I saw them. After I had been to school, I no longer saw them that way. They no longer seemed worth looking at. I forgot all about them.
Now, long out of school, I examine the roots of the world view I so docilely and unconsciously absorbed with my education until it seems to have altered the very molecular structure of my retina. (Our concepts determine our percepts.) I reflect: In the battery of human faculties employed in doing science, that one by which we are able to detect the presence of a “thou” is not included. The “thouness” of a thing is not even a “secondary quality.” There can be, therefore, no “thous” included in the world view arrived at by this method. (And the holographic paradigm is no improvement in this respect.) But since doing science is not my aim, do I have to be confined by this world view?
At the same time, I do not want to kid myself. I want (at least at this moment in the sun) to arrive at the most complete picture of reality possible to me with all my faculties (such as they are) working in concert, none despised or repressed.
I do sometimes come face to face with a “thou” in the world, at least a creature of my own approximate size and nature, though it seems to be more and more difficult for me to wake up to its presence. I have to make a conscious effort even under my own roof, even with a member of my own family, to feel that he, too, thinks, feels, suffers, aspires, longs for he knows not what in the context of our desolate world view. With the person sitting next to me on the subway I don’t even try. The power to perceive a “thou,” long since fallen from respect as an instrument for arriving at useful knowledge, has atrophied for lack of exercise.
The person in the heart is the same as the person in the sun—so the Upanishads tell us. Since we no longer conceive of the latter, the former seems to be fading out in direct proportion—an unexpected side effect. If we could revive the former, would we start to see the latter?
St. Francis saw a person in the sun—and in almost everything else, though I have never heard him accused of primitive animism. William Blake saw not just one person, but a multitude of the heavenly host singing Holy, Holy, Holy; and I myself, as a child, assumed the sun, although I was not allowed to look at it, had a big smile on its beaming face, as in the storybooks. I could plainly see for myself that the moon looked down benignly, like St. Anne in Leonardo’s painting, which hung in sepia reproduction over my bed. If we began to feel the presence of a person in the sun, there would be no need to look for life in outer space. The facts of science would compel us to be wholly occupied in adoration.
If I told you now that I saw a person in the sun, you might question my judgment. Don’t worry. I am unable. Standing up to go down and make dinner, I forget all about the sun.
But his power is among us.”