In today’s jmwwblog, James Heflin discusses the origin of his poem “Krakatoa Picnic,” which appears in the Winter 2014 issue of jmww.
If the Big Bang and the expansion that followed had gone slower or faster? No stars, no planets, no Nabokov. Though also no Duck Dynasty or The Eagles, so not all bad news.
The same is true of many another thing—if the fundamental forces of physics were slightly different, no humans. For that matter, if the Earth were a little farther away or closer to the sun, no people.
So when it comes right down to it, we must be really lucky to be alive. Then again, there’s a fairly recent (50ish years old) idea in the world of physics and cosmology called the Anthropic Principle. It sounds almost silly, especially when paraphrased without the mantle of sobriety that comes courtesy of its scientific terms. The universe is full of remarkable coincidences that allow for our self-aware existence, it says, and that’s really nothing to get your mind blown about, because if those things hadn’t happened, well, we wouldn’t be around to scratch our heads over them. Because we can do that, those unlikely things are true.
Another way of looking at it, courtesy of the multiverse idea that calls for the existence of an infinite variety of universes—some like ours, some so different that in them, bacon smells terrible—is that we exist in the only universe in which we can exist. There are many others in an unreachable “out there” that have never seen and will never see life.
For me, this idea is a convergence of religion, science, and art. It is one of the few instances of science asking the decidedly non-scientific, more properly religious or poetic “why?” It’s a weird thing to ponder. We wander around doing our human business, buying milk, fretting over the mortgage. Yet here we are, our very existences, no matter their dull details, an honest-to-goodness miracle.
Maybe it’s unremarkable, something that’s true because it couldn’t be otherwise. Yet to think about it is still to enter a rabbit hole, like staring at yourself in the mirror too long, or wondering if you would be you had your father married someone else.
Pondering the weirdness of simply being alive, the oddity of our helpless intertwining of the majestic and mundane, brought “Krakatoa Picnic” into being. It was, I think, conceived in a moment like the one that closes the poem, a moment of watching birds, with their animalian lack of circumspection, search for worms in the yard. How miraculous. How ordinary.