Sarah and James Bowdoin Day 2012 Student Address: Dan Palken 14

“Delightfully Useless”
Dan Palken ’14
September 28, 2012

Thank you President Mills. And I would like to thank the Internal Fellowship Committee for selecting me to speak before you today, as well as everyone involved in making Sarah and James Bowdoin Day possible. I would also like to extend a special thanks to Professors Battle, Syphers, and Naculich in the physics department and Kibbie in the English department for their large roles in shaping me into who I am today, and lastly to my parents, as well as my brother, Greg, for their never-ending support.

But the reason I am here this afternoon is because I want to share, with all of you, a story that has given me a lot of cause for thought over the past year or so. It’s not a story that many of you will be familiar with; in fact it hasn’t happened yet. And it won’t be happening for a while. The story takes place after everyone in this room will have passed away. It takes place after every one of our children will be long gone, and their children for that matter. Actually, the entire human race will, to a virtual certainty, have expired, along with all other forms of life in the galaxy, by the time this story takes place. All of the stars in the universe will have burnt out – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I suppose I should preface this story with a short history of the universe. From the time of the Big Bang, ours was a universe with loads of two things – Hydrogen and Helium. Gravity got to work on these the minute things kicked off, slowly and steadily bringing the atoms together into ever-larger clumps. Eventually, the pressure at the center of these clumps became so great that the Hydrogen atoms started being slammed into one another so forcefully that they merged into Helium. This is called fusion, and it’s how stars work. Put enough gas in one place, and it begins to burn in a fire brighter than anything we can create on Earth.

And stars have been fusing away since not too long after the universe began, and will continue to do so for quite a while. But not forever. All stars eventually die. And from their remnants, new stars are born. But, eventually, one day, there won’t be enough Hydrogen left in the universe for any new stars to form, and all of the old ones will have died out. The projected date for this happening (everybody get out your calendars) is about a hundred trillion, or ten to the fourteenth, years from now.

So what will happen once all the stars are dead? Nothing. Life can’t exist without energy, and if all of the stars in the universe have gone out, chances are that life will have exhausted all of its comparatively meager resources, and perished as well. The universe, once positively alive and bustling with billions upon billions of stars, will be completely silent, and completely dark.

And it will exist in this state for around ten to the fortieth years. While it had activity for a hundred trillion years, it could easily go a hundred million billion trillion trillion years without. This is kind of sad. It’s really impossible to make an analogy meaningfully depicting the ten to the fourteenth years the universe will have stars as compared to the ten to the fortieth years that it won’t. So, naturally, being a physics major, I’ll go ahead and try to make one: if the time the universe had stars was represented in length by the edge of a dime, the ten to the fortieth years that it won’t would be about a hundred times the diameter of the milky way galaxy – a truly astronomical figure.

However, somewhere in this galactic ocean of time, physicists have calculated that a curious event is statistically quite likely to happen, and this is where things get interesting. I first got word of this event last year, as I passed a quiet evening away in my room in Mayflower Apartments watching a thirty minute lecture on astronomy by Professor Alex Filippenko of UC Berkeley. He stated the finding (that I’m about to fill you in on) as if it wasn’t one of the most profound and beautiful pieces of knowledge ever unearthed in any sphere of human enquiry, which almost caused me to miss it. I stopped the DVD however, and jumped back thirty seconds.

What he glossed over was that, though all the stars will be long gone in this distant future, planets will not. And while that includes rather dinky planets like this one underneath us, it also includes the likes of Jupiter. Remember that all it takes for a star to form is a certain critical amount of Hydrogen. Jupiter has almost enough. Make it eight or ten times bigger, and we would have two suns in our solar system, not one. Meanwhile, there are many planets five or six times bigger than Jupiter littered throughout the universe. Floating through oblivion for near-eternity, eventually, two such planets, in all probability, will collide. Now this may be ten to the thirteenth years from the death of the stars, or ten to the thirtieth. But eventually, it ought to happen. And when it does, there will be a massive body big enough to allow for fusion, and a lone star will be born.

There is something positively poetic about this idea: that one day, in an ocean of nothingness expanding spatially and temporally beyond the bounds of even our imaginations, a solitary candle, the size of a star, will suddenly, randomly, ignite, burrowing furiously, though only momentarily, into a darkness that had seemed endless and infinite the instant before, and filling the universe with something that it had not known since the late days of its infancy: light.

Now, what I’ve just told you may be the single most impractical finding in all of science. Ever. I could not even begin to think of imagining how we might even maybe consider the idea of possibly putting to use the fact that there is a high probability that, sometime in the unimaginably distant future, two planets will collide and make a star, blazing for several billion years in empty nothingness before going out like all of its ancestors. But even though the knowledge is scientific, to assume its value lies anywhere in the practical realm is akin to inquiring into the value of the Mona Lisa as kindling. I am so obsessed with this story for the same reasons that people read books or admire sculptures. It’s something absolutely beautiful, and it took a great deal of work to uncover. In fact, had we as people not done the work, it would never have been uncovered, and, while future history would still play out in exactly the same way, there would be no one to have ever appreciated its immense beauty, which, I think, would make it somehow less beautiful.

And, while science introduced this idea to us, it does not take a scientific mind to recognize its magnificence. Professor Filippenko of Berkeley, as I said, mentioned this discovery as if it was just another bit of data, at best perhaps a somewhat noteworthy one. Which points, I think, to a problem with the way scientists often operate. It is far too easy to just become a problem-solving machine. Something like an advanced calculator that is capable of reason, but not imagination. Science is wonderful because of what it does for us every day with computers, phones, medicine, and the like, but often people insist on stopping there. Why stop there? What I like most about science, and particularly my own branch of it, physics, is the degree to which it is capable of making you think.

Fortunately for us, at Bowdoin this kind of thinking is not considered a waste of time, as it is in so much of the world. It is incredibly tempting, once you know what you want to do in life, to go ahead and focus all of your energy on that one thing. I want ultimately to push forward with physics. But deciding to set aside enough time for the English major as well has to be one of the better decisions I’ve ever made. Will my literary background lead me to make a new discovery about the physical world? No. But will it allow me to appreciate those little facts of my own accidental finding that could so easily have been passed over? That, at least, is my hope. I doubt that I ever would have paused my DVD that night back in Mayflower, had it not been so ingrained in me to constantly ask those persistent questions: “why does this matter? why is this important?,” and, if I hadn’t, I never would have known it, but my life would have gone down a slightly different path – one that, in hindsight, I am glad that it did not go down.

And that is what I wanted to share with you. What I love about the story, once you get past all the Hydrogen, is the discrepancy between how unimaginably useless it is, and how much pleasure dwelling on it gives me. It is a warm consolation to know, on those dark winter nights in Searles, that even if I can’t solve all of the homework problems put in front of me, I don’t need to in order for the physics to make me feel fulfilled, and, ultimately, happy. Of course, most of you sitting here aren’t physics majors, so I can’t say I expect that you’ll take from my story the exact same thing I did, but that’s sort of the point – that it’s the overlooked parts of things that so often make them meaningful. Hopefully, some of you will find a way of thinking about what I’ve told you today in a way that I haven’t dreamt of, and that will make sitting through this whole speech worthwhile. That’s the idea, anyways. For now, thank you.