Free to Dream on the Universe?

Alexander Wolszczan
January 01, 2001

Editor's Note: As the discoverer of the first planets outside of our solar system, Alexander Wolszczan was asked by the Polish-born French artist Wojtek Siudmak to contribute an essay to his Millennium Exhibition, which opened June 8 in the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Siudmak, who describes his art as "hyper-realistic," asked Wolszczan to write something loosely related to his paintings."What I wrote", says Wolszczan, "is about liberation from physics and the constraints under which we live ó which is also what Siudmak's paintings are about. I wanted to show how speculation, fantasy, and science interact. Progress is not only made through science," he adds. Siudmak's paintings and Wolszczan's essay were also presented together in a multimedia format as part of the Poland exhibit last October at EXPO 2000 in Hannover, Germany.

orange drawing of man in bubble

On a hot July night in Florida, I am driving back from Cape Canaveral with scenes from the recent drama of a failed launch of space shuttle Columbia endlessly replaying themselves in front of my eyes. Ironically, as it turned out later, it was a computer error that had sentenced the shuttle to remain grounded and left everybody involved so bitterly disappointed.

Watching the darkness through the windshield of my car, I suddenly realize that this traumatic experience has magnified my fascination with the Cosmos and heightened my desire to liberate myself from the limitations so mercilessly imposed upon us by space and time. Somewhat enviously, but in a dreamy, strangely comforting fashion, I think of Wojtek Siudmak and the wonderous freedom he enjoys while creating his delightful worlds of fantasy. Myself, a researcher bound by science—the golden cage created by the laws of nature— must remain forever barred from his experiences. Maybe Siudmak has simply understood the truth about our relationship with the Universe, whereas I can only encounter it in my own dreams and fantasies?

In my hotel again, fatigued by the night's adventure, I fall asleep reluctantly contemplating my morning flight back to Pennsylvania.

Iopen my eyes, floating in space among stars, safely enclosed in a crystal sphere that reassuringly separates me from emptiness. The sphere protects my fragile, earthly body against the Cosmos. It removes all the limitations imposed upon my senses by the terrestrial evolution. It transforms me into a being that can exist in space, time, all the possible dimensions. I unfold myself into the Universe and drink from it in a hungry desire to comprehend all that has been inaccessible to the limited senses of a human being.

I immerse myself in space and time. I am surrounded by whispering stars—the young ones, still restless to settle down in the Galaxy; the mature ones, patiently resisting the omnipresent gravity; and the ones that are dying to give birth to the new stellar generations. I see the galactic grave-yard of matter that has no more future—suns that die slowly, the ones that explode, and the vanishing stars that have no place in the spacetime of my Universe. I sense new aspects of its existence that have never been perceived by the human science.

Iplunge into the cosmic noise and strive to hear voices whose meaning I understand so well. Life! Following my desires, the sphere travels from star to star, from planet to planet. Extended across space and time I try to follow the birth, rise and fall of countless galactic civilizations. I look for superbeings and galactic empires. Instead, I encounter life that is still struggling to understand the sense of its limited existence, while my magical vehicle allows me to move unencumbered by any such restraints. However, I am still not free enough to understand whether life is a dead end of universal evolution or merely a first step toward a much fuller existence.

Iwill my sphere to travel back in time, longing to understand the meaning of life in the history of the Universe. I want to know how it was created and what is its ultimate destiny. I watch galaxies—these gigantic but strangely inconsequential clusterings of matter—becoming younger and younger, with fewer and fewer signs of life, rapidly approaching the moment of their fiery creation. I continue searching for planets and civilizations, struggling through a rapidly growing chaos that heralds my proximity to the peculiar moment of the beginning of everything. I somehow know that answers to all my nagging doubts and questions lie there and I make just one more desperate effort to peer through a thickening shield of gigantic energy and uncover them. But this desire is so overwhelming for my crystal sphere that it suddenly disintegrates in a blinding flash, leaving me naked in the face of the nascent Universe.

. . . I suddenly wake up, instantly aware of the terrestrial gravitation painfully flattening me on my bed. I slowly get up to face the unwelcome prospect of travel and, over my morning coffee, contemplate the cosmic freedom that seems so easy to achieve in a dream and so impossible to attain in reality.

Alexander Wolszczan, Ph.D., is Evan Pugh professor of astronomy and astrophysics in the Eberly College of Science, 525 Davey Lab, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1756; alex@astro.psu.edu. Text copyright by Alexander Wolszczan 2000. All rights reserved.

Last Updated January 01, 2001