My Gossamer Universe

I’m fascinated by the universe.

I studied philosophy because I was too lazy to do my maths, but had I not been, I would certainly have studied theoretical astrophysics.

While officially consuming Plato and Kant, as a young woman I frequented a secret side buffet of physics-for-dummies dishes – Hawking’s Brief History; Einstein’s little book about relativity; that book, The Elegant Universe, by whoever that string theory guy was. Fact is, there’s a great lot of money to be made by physicists writing palatable books for the rest of us who are hungering for a taste of what it’s all about.

One quite brilliant-but-lesser-known fellow, all of whose lay books I’ve read, was James Hopwood Jeans. As an early quantum physicist whose life spanned from the late 19th to the mid-twentieth centuries, Sir James saw singular advancements in astronomical theory. In each new edition of his compelling book, The Universe Around Us, he notes new discoveries and finally, in prefacing the fourth edition, this: “In the interval since the third edition appeared, astronomy has continued its triumphal progress… outstanding advances have necessitated many changes in and additions to my book. A large part of it has been rewritten, while most of the remainder has been substantially amended.”

What a thrill to be engaged in a field that forces one, with no immediate threat from wild animals, to think and adapt so quickly.

But why put you through this? I offer light poetry, photography, and memoir: flashes from my own experience and camera that I hope will resonate with you.

This post is a citation.

The idea of the Gossamer Universe might certainly have a pretentiously arty ring to it, seeming the fay construction of an affected git. But I borrow the concept with consideration from James H. Jeans, who said:

“As we pass the whole structure of the universe under review, from the giant nebulae and the vast interstellar and internebular spaces down to the tiny structure of the atom, little but vacant space passes before our mental gaze. We live in a gossamer universe; pattern, plan and design are there in abundance, but solid substance is rare.”

I will never know the thrill of contributing to the big reveal of the vast, dark matter of our universe; and I certainly lean into metaphor when explanations elude me. Consumers of ideas tend to think associatively, and so the “echoes” here are partly reflections of a greater perspective that I can neither achieve nor comprehend. But mostly, they are the rare, solid substances, the trees we can grasp when the forest is too big to see.

It is left, even to the most disciplined of mathematicians and physicists, to experience the effects of what is and to make at least functional sense, locally, of those experiences. As radically different from our perception of it as the physical universe may be, that perception is all we can meaningfully act upon. Even our imaginings about suspension and agency in the gossamer universe occur within the limits of perception.

The prismatic exactitude of a rainbow, the guttered dirt and leaves of spring, a heart replete with love: all these perceptions can be explained and even addressed as functions of physical laws.

But they cannot be rendered small by an infinite universe that contains but does not itself perceive them, a universe that neither knows nor cares about having brought them to be.



Gossamer Universe 2017 (All Rights Reserved)

For more information about James Hopwood Jeans:


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