January 15, 2021
“Have you ever watched that movie,” my father asked, “where the whole universe is in the pendant of a cat’s collar?” We were driving along a stretch of grey highway, en route to Montreal, Quebec. Signs overhead read: ‘Stay Home: Protect Yourself from COVID-19.’
I shook my head no. “Well, I think that’s it,” he said. “The pendant is the answer.” He looked back at the road.
“What do you mean?” He had piqued my interest. I had been feeling existential lately, searching for concrete answers about the nature of the universe, why we exist, why I exist. Why anything matters if we can’t leave our homes and experience the world.
“Isn’t it strange that an atom resembles our solar system?” my father said. An atom is made up of a nucleus orbited by electrons, which, suspiciously, resemble the sun and the planets, he explained.
“If atoms are solar systems,” I countered, “shouldn’t we be able to look at them and see little ridges on their surface?” If we look closely enough, I said, maybe we will find that the nucleus is in fact a sun, and the electrons are planets, and on those planets there are fathers driving along stretches of highway with their daughters.
“We can’t see them,” my father said. “They’re too small. We assume they’re smooth. Anyway, the thing that you’re using to look at them, a microscope, is made of atoms, the very thing you’re trying to observe.”
I considered his theory. Maybe our solar system is a single atom making another larger being. Our universe could be in its shoulder, while another universe might be found on the tip of its nose. The oldest universes could be found in oak trees; the most precarious of universes on the back of a fire ant. The birth and death of our universe would coincide with the birth and death of the animal we make up.
We are so small that we could never possibly see the shoulder, or the nose, or the whole being from our vantage point. And when this being meets its end, so too will our world and everything on it. Why does anything matter, then, if we are so small?
“No,” I reasoned aloud. “Just because something is small doesn’t make it unimportant.”
As the car ride continued, I adopted the theory and made it my own. Maybe observing the microscopic could tell us more than looking out at the cosmos. The macroscopic.
Your theory, I told my father, goes both ways. If our solar system (an atom) makes up a greater being, the properties of which we could never imagine, then it stands to reason that we, too, are made up of atoms, and subsequently, solar systems. If solar systems are atoms, then different elements would constitute vastly different solar systems. Human beings are carbon-based, made up of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. I interrogated my father about these finer details until he relented, saying, “It’s not perfect, Mar. I haven’t thought it all through,” but I kept on.
When we die, we unknowingly snuff out the universes in our care. We extinguish their artwork, their cultures, entire humanities. We are, like Oppenheimer said, the creator and destroyer of worlds.
Later, I would read online that scientists have refuted this atom-as-solar-system idea, arguing that the Bohr atomic model is probably inaccurate. The model is outdated. Quantum mechanics means that the electrons probably swarm the nucleus like bees, instead of in an orbit. We can’t be sure.
My father’s theory, however, suits the moment nicely. As I sit in my Montreal apartment, working on a my degree, I work diligently toward a future no one can envision. The COVID-19 variants are spreading; the U.S. capitol has been stormed by rioters; the vaccines are being rolled out slowly, without urgency. Montreal is under lockdown, and everything is closed: restaurants, stores, windows, doors, hearts, minds. It becomes increasingly difficult to convince myself that there is meaning in what I am doing.
The theory soothes my anxieties. I matter, because I am matter. I am made of universes.