For the vast majority of humans around the world who will be celebrating the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, the dawn of a new year is a major marker in time, a signpost, a reminder that we are inexorably moving out of the past and into the future.
Indeed, there are few, if any, moments when nearly the entire human population is cognizant of a shared sociocultural event as the Gregorian calendar-based New Year's Eve.
The ancient Romans also recognized January 1 as the first day of the new year ever since Julius Caesar established the big event in 46 BC. He dedicated the day to Janus (hence the name of the month, January), who was the god of doors, beginnings, endings and time and who had two faces -- one looking at the past, the other looking to the future.
Even the Chinese, in their vast numbers -- and who won't be celebrating their new year until February 3 -- are quite aware of tomorrow's momentous nature. It is, after all, the first day of the year on the internationally accepted civil calendar.
YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION
But amidst the flurry of anticipation, preparation, celebration and the habitual tendency of humans to use such a portentous moment as an opportunity for intense self-reflection (e.g., "What I Didn't Accomplish Last Year"), self-adjustment (e.g., "This Is the Year I Will Quit Smoking") and self-congratulation (e.g., "My Top 10 Albums of 2010"), it is easy to forget why we have marked our history thusly every 365 days. It is simply the amount of time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
In regard to this solitary fact, we are the only species who cares a feather or a fig. The 365-day journey is real. The portent...well, not so much.
Unless something really unpredictable happens between today and tomorrow, Homo sapiens will successfully survive yet another revolution around our parent star onboard spaceship Earth, just as our species has done for the past 200,000 or so years. But Earth has made this 365-day-long journey much longer than we have been around -- about 4.6 billion times.
IN THE BEGINNING
After the moment of singularity caused by the Big Bang, the universe cooled, causing the conversion of energy into neutrons, protons, electrons and other subatomic particles. After thousands of years, electron combined with nuclei, producing the first element: hydrogen. Traces of helium were also present. Gravity forced these elements to form stars.
Around 4.6 billion years ago, a star at the edge of our Milky Way galaxy died, collapsing into a supernova. While in the throes of death, it ejected the superheated contents of its core out into space, where the particles collided with a hydrogren molecular cloud. Gravity pulled the particles towards the cloud's dense center, sparking a nuclear reaction that created the Sun.
The remaining debris formed the protoplanetary disk, and soon after (a few to a hundred million years, a timeframe that constitutes "soon," at least in cosmological terms), through accretion, the Earth was born, along with the other planets and the asteroids. It was a chaotic time of collisions.
All of the planets in our Solar System are bound by the Sun's gravitational pull and revolve around it. Earth, like its other planetary siblings, was born as a by-product of the Sun's formation.
LOOKING AT AND LISTENING TO THE SUN
According to University of Cambridge astrophysicist Douglas Gough, understanding the immense power at the core of the Sun, where the nuclear reactions are so violent that new particles are born, "helps us to understand the basic physics of elementary matter." In other words, our Sun, like all other stars, is a creator. "To understand the universe," Gough says, "we need to study the stars." But there's only one star that gave birth to and sustains life on Earth.
Seeing the core of the Sun -- where all the creation happens -- is currently technologically impossible. But scientists have been listening to the Sun's interior by recording the sounds that it makes. Every six minutes or so, the Sun "breathes" in and out, an activity that causes a complex pattern of ripples on the surface -- a key to the fire that rages in its belly.
Alexander G. Kosovichev, a senior research scientist at the W.W. Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford University, studies the sounds made by the Sun. The recordings he analyzes were taken by the Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI), a device onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft that measures underlying magnetic fields and gas flow patterns on the solar surface.
If we humans must worship a god, we could do much worse than picking the Sun as the object of our devotion. Ultimately, it is the reason we are here and continue to be here. No matter our different races and religions, nationalities and political parties, cultures and beliefs, there are just a few fundamental elements from which all of us -- and indeed, all things in our Solar System -- are made, and they came from within the violent thermonuclear cauldron deep within the core of the Sun.
Humans have invented so many names for the "creator" so many it's difficult to keep track of them all. Atum. Unkulunkulu. Coatlicue. El. Vishvakarman. Ra-Horakhty. Pangu. Demiurge. Brahma. Waheguru. Allah. God. But in the Universe as we know it, there is only one kind of creator, and it is a star. And there are many of them. As American astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, "A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars -- billions upon billions of stars."
The European Space Agency (ESA) estimates that there are somewhere on the order of 1022 to 1024 stars in the known Universe. As far as our own Solar System is concerned, there is only one star, one creator -- that hot ball of fire around which we revolve every 365 days.
If, as Wikipedia states, religion is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe," then the world's astrophysicists could make a strong case that their line of work constitutes a big chunk of that set -- at least the "cause" and "nature" parts. As far as the "purpose" part goes, well...perhaps the monks should chime in on that.
In the 2005 documentary film about him, American astronomer John Dobson (who also happens to be a Vedantic monk of the Ramakrishna Order) suggests that physicists and Vedantics are really searching for the same thing. As he notes, "There are only three ingredients in this universe: hydrogen, helium and the dust of exploded stars." Scientists and philosophers are living in the same reality, so if science and philosophy are to find agreement on the nature of being and existence, agreeing on this basic fact is sine qua non. Perhaps the essence of reality and spirituality can be found forged inside the creators of our universe -- stars.
So, if at the stroke of midnight, you happen to be viewing a fireworks display, try to look beyond the shallow depth-of-field filled with colored lights of exploding gunpowder and peer deep into the night sky. You won't be able to see our Sun, for it will be shining on the other side of the Earth, but perhaps you will be able see a different star. Much more distant than ours, to be sure, but in its lifetime, no less influential to the celestial bodies that may be drawn to it by the lure of its gravitational pull.
So go ahead, worship the Sun. After all, you are stardust.
[Editor's note: December was Victory Month on 13.7 Billion Years. Posts this month considered various victories that were made possible in 2010 in part by actions taken by the public, such as signing petitions; sending letters to elected representatives; asking companies to rethink standards, practices and policies; changing personal habits or making statements at the cash register as consumers. By taking a moment to get involved in the discussion, you have helped to make a difference. Thank you. And good luck on your next journey around the Sun.]
[top image of sand timer: Bindaas Madhavi]