What is death? — Part 1

November 24, 2014

— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

Open this video.  Sit with it for awhile.  (Turn up your speakers.)

Achingly beautiful, isn’t it?  You could listen forever, couldn’t you?

(The other day I happened to be in a café, quietly playing this on my laptop. “Oh, so relaxing!” exclaimed the waitress.)

Keep listening.  I’m going to say something you will have trouble believing.  You won’t believe it for the very good reason that you won’t “feel” what I’m talking about.  (Generally I don’t feel it either, despite knowing it’s true.)


That stream is you.  And you do, in fact, listen to it and live it.  Forever.  And so do I.  Although neither of us realizes this, save for rare moments when we sense we’re in the presence of something infinitely larger and more powerful than ourselves — something almost painfully beautiful and yet incapable of being expressed in words.


You have always been suffused with this stream.  Dissolved in it.  Even before you were born and after you die.  For the stream is eternal.  It is the universe.

winter night

by Sabra Field

When I say “universe,” I’m talking about more than deep space, whether it be the breathtaking beauty of a cold, clear February night or the esoteric study of black holes, supernovas and galaxies — the field we call astrophysics or cosmology.  I’m talking about a great, patient Intelligence that created you and me, spring peepers, whales, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and night-blooming jasmine, along with birth and death.


Cosmologists and astrophysicists know a great deal about the mechanics of the universe, such as space-time, gravity, the strong and weak force, dark matter, the Big Bang — phenomena that yield their secrets to mathematical interrogation.  What they don’t know is the answer to Einstein’s famous question:  “Is the universe friendly?”

It happens the answer depends on who’s asking — a fact confirmed by quantum mechanics and implied by Einstein’s special relativity.


Let’s go outside and have a smoke.  (Mind if I bum one?)  Yeah, heavy stuff.  If we’re going to ponder death, we must first understand how “reality” works.  Which means we’ve got to come to grips with the physics of the universe.  For death, including our death, is part of the universe’s reality.

Remember, the universe is more than space-time and gravity and all that mind-numbing stuff; it’s also that Intelligence that Einstein found fascinating and, yes, humbling.  For many physicists, the boundary between physics and what Aristotle called meta-physics (meaning literally “above” or “beyond” physics) becomes blurry.  Where, indeed, is the line between physics and theology and philosophy?  The only reasonable answer is that at some point all three fields converge.  Which is precisely where this essay is taking us — to that point of intersection.

Back to “Is it friendly” and my response, “It depends on who’s asking the question.”  “Reality” works weirdly.  Often counter-intuitively.  Further confounding the matter is the fact that reality seems to operate differently under different physical conditions, as Einstein famously demonstrated with his work on relativity.

For a glimpse of just how weirdly “reality” works, listen (click here) to this 6-minute BBC interview with two theoretical physicists,  Professors Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, authors of the book, “Quantum Universe.”  Notice toward the end of the interview where one of the scientists describes something as simple as throwing a ball, and how the subatomic components of that ball actually “sniff out the entire universe”  as the ball “emerges” from your hand to mine.

ball fixed

What they are describing is quantum mechanics — the bizarre world of subatomic matter (if one can even call this “matter”).  This is what super-colliders are about:  an effort to smash matter into yet more primitive, elementary, even ancient bits, as it were, to arrive if possible at what journalists call the God Particle — the ultimate building block of reality itself.

ancient of days

William Blake, “Ancient of Days”

Okay, you can breathe again.  In Part 2 we will contemplate the unnerving, weirdly incomprehensible world explored by Danish physicist Niels Bohr, generally considered the father of quantum mechanics.  For in this world lies the answer to “What is death” and, more, the profound meaning of the Stream, above.

niels bohr fixed