Sometimes, it’s good to feel miniscule and in total awe of a much larger world. It’s liberating. It’s enthralling. So that news last week about physicists detecting gravitational waves was good for the soul and the imagination.
Sure, it’s healthy to be reminded of our importance, of our power and responsibility to make a difference for other people in our day to day lives. But it’s just as important to be reminded that we and our problems and our elections and our strident righteousness don’t amount to a hill of beans. That we are a pimple on an elephant’s … well, you know what I mean.
In the old days I described myself as a periodical reader. I’m not sure what label to apply now. I do read voraciously. But it’s news, essays, political analysis, economic stuff and baseball. And mostly online.
I enjoy reading print books, but they’ve always been second fiddle. Inspired by the gravitational wave discovery and needing a break from my own habits, I cracked open a Christmas gift from Beth, “Voices in the Ocean.” It’s about dolphins. I have a dolphin thing, owed largely to our time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A singular, profound pleasure was sitting with coffee, watching the rhythmic coordination of pods of dolphins moving along the shore. If there’s a higher power, I’m certain these creatures are one of the best manifestations of it.
And I’m of that certain age who was watching TV when Flipper was popular.
I’m only a quarter or so into the book but loving it—and I’ve learned that the popularity of Flipper was not an accident, entirely. An enigmatic guy named John Lilly, who seems to have been a sort of blend of Hunter S. Thompson and scientist, became entranced with how dolphins navigate the world, communicate with each other, and the prospect that dolphins and humans could possibly learn to communicate with one another.
Lilly pursued some good science, but also perhaps ingested too many psychedelic drugs. In fact, he was the basis for a 1980 Ken Russell film, (written by Paddy Chayefsky), starring William Hurt, called “Altered States.”
But Lilly was onto something, and the scientific community and the U.S. Navy, among others—became interested in dolphins in the 1950s and 1960s. And dolphins rightly became a thing; hence Flipper. Research continues, and the more we learn, the more intriguing those dolphins become. The more we know, the less we know.
Which brings me back full circle—and how it’s important to also be reminded that it’s worth our tiny slogs in this giant universe. An acquaintance had this to say upon the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves:
Hey gang: If you work in a big bureaucracy and ever wonder whether your work will add up in the long run, take heart from this. When my dad was at NSF in the 90s, he fought hard to sponsor and protect the project (called LIGO) that just achieved this huge breakthrough.
We are small and inconsequential. We are important.