Birth and Death: A Theory of Relativity

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Irving Kaufman in Truro, Massachusetts, when a still-young 89.

I hope you will indulge me in this foray into a very different look at the many worlds in which we live.

My father is being buried today.  It is no tragedy;  he lived to almost 97 and had a full life.  But still…

As all of you have no doubt experienced in one way or another, there is a huge disconnect between the emotions we feel individually about a newcomer to our world or a departing elder and the arrival and departure of those we don’t know at all.

The birth of a loved child is as glorious as most anything can be.  And yet it is, in the larger picture, totally banal.  I found this figure:  By 2011, an estimated 107,602,707,800 humans had been born since the emergence of the species.

Same with death.  The death of a loved elder is a profound event.  And yet it, too, is banal.  One hundred billion of those born have also died.

There are a handful of exceptions to this dual reality. These births and deaths (and lives) are not viewed as banal but as historically important.  You can pick your own people for that list, but I bet they will be a group of people both very good and very bad, many of them talented and all of them charismatic.

But for the rest of us,  a particular birth and death are of enormous importance to very few.  It’s a kind of background noise.

Why am I writing about this now?

Clearly because I’m grieving and trying to make sense of the suffering and passing of my father.

But also because that grief — and the absence of grief all around me in New York City where he lived — speaks to that weird relativity in the emotional universe.  When you look closely at what reality is, the picture is very different from how things may feel inside.

 

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) is an image of a small region of space in the constellation Fornax, composited from Hubble Space Telescope data.  The image looks back approximately 13 billion years (between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang) and will be used to search for galaxies that existed at that time. (NASA)

This is a dichotomy I’ve had to embrace as I learn and write about the cosmos.  Our human view of the world is, well, often quite lacking in perspective.

Our sense of time is another example.  We humans live within a story line where a life of 97 years is a very long one.  Although there are an increasing number of long-lived people — almost two million above age 90 in the United States — they remain a tiny percentage of the population.

In terms of Earth’s 4.5 million years of geological time,  my father’s 96 years is less than a blip.  And in astronomical time — the 13.7 billion years of the universe — they are completely inconsequential.

Our human lifetimes matter so much to us. But in the reality of time and space as they truly exist,  those lives mean virtually nothing.  Yet we persist in our great joys and sorrows.  “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” wrote one of those people whose name and legend does live on. “They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” I think my father would appreciate this stepped-back approach to his passing.

My mother, Mabel Kaufman, as drawn by her young husband in the late 1930s.  She died in 2006.

He was born poor in the South Bronx and became a soldier, student, artist, professor, poet and voracious reader.  His background included virtually no science study, but as I wrote more about space and life origins, he found those subjects to be increasingly interesting.  (They were a welcome reprieve for me from the political discussions he was inclined to wage in a take-no-prisoners style.)

He was not a religious man, but he did enjoy thinking and reading about subjects ranging from the beginning of the cosmos to theories of quantum life. I don’t think he would ever use this word, but he sought a kind of cosmic transcendence.

This was especially so after the passing of his wife of 63 years.  He was nearly crushed by his grief, but he gradually put together a life that continued with stubborn and hopefully satisfying independence for 11 years.

He told me for several years that he didn’t fear death.  He didn’t want to die and went to many doctors to try to keep going.  But he said he was ready to accept the end, and in his final weeks and days I came to see that he was  — especially as he lost his treasured independence and endured a not inconsiderable amount of suffering.

He slowly left after a week of refusing almost all food and water.  I’m told it’s a kind of animal path to dying. (No disrespect here, as we are animals, of course.)  And I think such a path is no tragedy, especially given his good fortune to have had almost 97 years on Earth.

Irv Kaufman as a young art professor at the University of Michigan.

I wrote a column early in my tenure at Many Worlds about Einstein and his ideas about “cosmic religion.” In it, I wrote about that part of Einstein’s thinking that gets less attention than it seems to deserve, to me at least.  And as I was thinking about my father’s passing, Einstein’s thoughts on cosmic religion came back to me.

No god, no unresolvable mysteries, no dogma.  Instead the wonderful and punishing laws of nature and the cosmos, and our good fortune to have some time living in them as human beings.  A kind of clear-eyed transcendence without all the religious trappings.

Thoughts of clear-eyed transcendence brought back to mind the most searing and surprising death and aftermath that I’ve witnessed.  When I was a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a charming young woman and her reporter husband were finally going to have a long-desired baby.  Well into the pregnancy, as I remember it, the woman starting getting very sick and was ultimately diagnosed with a fast-spreading cancer.

It was brutal, but she hung on and gave birth.  And then a few days later she died.

The entire Inquirer staff came to her funeral, and her husband got up to speak.  None of us knew what to expect, what someone in his place could possibly say.

But speak he did, and what he had to say was powerfully moving and instructive.  Yes, he had felt despair and anger at the awful turn of events, and, yes, what faith he had was shattered.

Then he spoke as if transported about the unexpected understanding that had come to him.

The death was an absolute tragedy and hideously unfair.  But out of it had come a beautiful, healthy boy.  Despite the horrible twist of fate, something precious had arrived.  The mother’s strength and grit had allowed a longed-for baby to survive.

And the husband ended with this reality lost in the grief:  had his wife not been pregnant, she still would have died of cancer. But she would have died without a lovely child delivered to the world.

Grief and joyful transcendence. There was not a dry eye in the huge crowd and not a heart that had not been lifted.

My father’s death will effect far fewer people than the one I just described.  The emotional punch of his passing has less force because he lived fully and because so many of his contemporaries are gone.

But the emotional dichotomy is still there and cries out for transcendence.  Each life is so important and yet so unimportant.  How do we make sense of that?

 

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Marc Kaufman

Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.


To contact Marc, send an email to marc.kaufman@manyworlds.space.


5 thoughts on “Birth and Death: A Theory of Relativity

  1. I am a faithful follower of your posts, and thoroughly enjoy reading each one. I am so sorry for the loss of your father. I lost my elderly father just before Christmas, and I am still trying to come to terms about that, even though, like you said, he lived a long & fulfilled life. Thank you very much for sharing this most difficult time in your life.

  2. Marc I’m sorry for your loss..and i say without being patronising that your father and mine were very similar. He too was a firebrand who was passionately interested in everything. It’s an emptiness that never quite goes away, and every day I miss him and think about him in some way- seven.years after his death. People like your father and mine are few and far between, and they made the world a better place while they were with us. May he rest in peace.
    * I apologise if this is all in capitals! For some reason I can’t go to lower case on my phone….

  3. Marc, I’m sorry for the recent loss of your father, and for your mother as well. I’m sitting quietly with you in spirit, making an effort to absorb your shock on this lovely, cool, sunny day in Washington, D.C.
    A few years ago When I got the call that my step-son had unexpectedly died , i was working in a blackened photographic studio. I thought, “This is an eclipse of my son.” And for me it was, yet stepping outside I found the sun was still shining. People were going about their business and some were even laughing together. I tried to walk around the block but could only wobble. Let me off you my arm.

  4. Thank you for this article marc. Sharing your grief is part of how we all learn to deal with the dichotomy of life and death.

    “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.” – William Shakespeare

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