Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Concept of Forever

I often wonder about the concept of "forever" and wonder where my atoms will be a thousand years from now, ten thousand years from now, a million years from now, a billion years from now, and even a trillion years from now. Geologists have pretty much pegged the age of the earth at about 4.5 billion years, so a trillion years from now is almost incomprehensible.

Still, in a trillion years, everything will have to be somewhere.

As an atheist I do not believe in the concept of dead corpses rising up from graves being transformed into living "life ever after".  Recently I listened to a friend trying to fathom how if someone is cremated and part of their ashes are spread in the Atlantic Ocean and part in the Pacific Ocean, how will they ever be reconnected when the "resurrection" occurs.  Sorry to tell you but that's not going to happen just like people aren't going to rise up out of graves and have a huge life reunion with everyone they ever knew.

Despite this unwelcome intrusion of reality, right now there is a calcium atom in the nail of your left pinky finger. That atom has been around since the creation of the universe and by all bets, it will still be around a trillion years from you.  It just wont be in your left pinky finger any more.

Reverting to my college minor in Physics I'm reminded of the First Law of Thermodynamics which is a subset of the larger Law of the Conservation of Energy.  This cornerstone law of the physical world states that "the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another but can neither be created or destroyed."   So that calcium atom (along with every other atom in your body) is a form of energy that will be around long after you have departed.

Before my epiphany, when I was fed a weekly indoctrination of Lutheran teachings, I regularly heard the minister recite Psalm 23, verse 6.  This was usually at the conclusion of one of the regular prayers, maybe what was called "the Benediction."  Regardless of where it occurred in the ceremony, Psalm 23:6 reads, "Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever."  Forever?  How will you "dwell...forever" if, as my friend worried recently, part of your ashes are spread in the Atlantic Ocean and part in the Pacific?

Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife biology and the first professor of wildlife biology (at the University of Wisconsin, of course) published a book titled "A Sand County Almanac" in 1948.  Actually the book was published a few short weeks after Leopold died while trying to extinguish a prairie fire in Sauk County, Wisconsin.  The book is a compendium of Leopold's thoughts and experiences in land and natural resource management.  Spring quarter 1970, Dr. Al Beaver who taught my "Conservation of Natural Resources" class, required all students to read the book.  After I had finished, I found a new "bible" that I could believe everything in it.  It remains my bible today.  

One story "Thinking Like a Mountain" tells the tale of the day when Leopold, as a young forest manager in New Mexico, shot a female wolf that was crossing a stream with its pups.  At first Leopold was ecstatic about his kill but then, as he says so hauntingly, "we reached the old wolf in time to see a fierce green fire dying in her eyes."  The sight of the dying wolf, dead at his hand, transformed Leopold from someone who thought every predator was bad, to someone who realized that without predators, there will be a lot fewer "preferred" animals like deer or wapiti.

Another story, "The Geese Return" tells the tale of the annual migration of Canada geese, and what we can learn about us from them.  In his writings Leopold demonstrates the intrinsic value of wildlife and wildness.  Leopold tried to interpret what the geese saw and experienced as they migrated south, told of the excitement of a young boy racing home with tales of high adventure after encountering a flock of geese, and at the end of the essay asked the question "What if there be no goose music?"  It was a question that haunted me throughout my career and one that is even more important today.

None of this, however, has anything to do with the concept of "forever", a supposed resurrection, or any of the mantra's we were exposed to in church.  Not until we discover his essay "Odyssey"  First published in 1942, "Odyssey" tells the story of an atom, probably a nitrogen atom, that lays dormant in the soil for ages then one day is taken up by a bur oak that was transformed into a part of an acorn that fed a deer that fed a native american who, when he died, returned the atom to the soil.

Odyssey continues describing the journey of the atom as it passes through other plants and other animals; a spiderwort one spring, a rabbit one summer, a fox one winter, as the cycle continued.  Eventually the atom became a part of a tree that became part of the beaver that ate the tree. The beaver died in the winter and the following spring the beaver carcass along with the nitrogen atom were swept downstream until finally the atom found its way back to "lay again in his ancient prison, the sea."

I have often wondered if Leopold understood as he wrote this superb essay, that he was not only describing the endless journey of an atom (any atom) though the ages, but also, maybe inadvertently he was also describing how all of us, through our atoms, will "dwell in the house of the lord forever."  It won't be as a resurrected shell that was once a body, but as a form of energy that cannot be destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. 


  1. I have similar beliefs. I wonder why people who do "believe" are sad when someone dies. If I believed that my someone was released from pain and died, and I would see them in the afterlife, I would be fine with that. In fact, it would vastly change my feelings about death. It would change a lot. I think that's why people cling to belief in God--mortality is just too big to comprehend, and its hard to think that we are only here for a second in time. So we invented something greater, to solve all the unanswered questions. I marvel at the fact that we walk shoulder to shoulder with people (most people) who believe in magic.

    And don't we define sanity by the ability to tell truth from fiction? By the ability to know what is real?

  2. around Puget Sound those atoms get recycled as salmon and on into the sea lions I just saw from my New Guinea they become Birds of Paradise