Discovering the infinite universe
Lewis H. Lapham, The editor and founder of Lapham’s Quarterly
A probable contender for a Nobel Prize at the age of eighty-one, Vera Rubin had been asked if she was troubled by the near-infinite expanse of human ignorance. The question was not gratuitous. Rubin’s eminence as an astronomer rested on her finding in the universe five, maybe ten times the mass of energy dreamed of in the cosmologies of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. Not only was the universe more infinite than previously imagined, but the newly discovered bulk of it was composed of dark matter destined to remain unknowable because not formed of the same atomic fairy dust as all things animal, mineral, and vegetable, celestial and terrestrial, to which mankind gives the names of nature ceaselessly creating itself.
To Rubin’s examiners, the discovery of a never-to-be-seen abyss was news unfit for man, machine, or beast. Was the dear lady not aghast? She was not. To the contrary. She stands in awe of her unknowing as if in Xanadu before the stately pleasure dome of Kubla Khan, where runs the sacred river Alph through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea. Isn’t that kind of the fun, the looking into the vast darkness ripe with wonders that will never cease? The limitless expanse of human ignorance Rubin sees as the fortunate provocation that rouses out the love of learning, kindles the signal fires of the imagination. We have no other light with which to see and maybe to recognize ourselves as human.