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Our Home Without a Center

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Can you imagine a place without a center? Actually you live in one. Let's see how this can be so.

Each of us moves about within our landscape, doing the things we do, surviving and enjoying our lives. We belong to groups that give us identity and influence the ways we conceive of ourselves, and all these groups--these cultures--deal with concepts of the universe and our place in it. Until recently humans generally thought of themselves as being right in the center of everything. After all, each of us perceives centers for nearly everything: a room has a center, so does a community as does planet Earth, the Solar System, and the Milky Way Galaxy. We are used to thinking in terms of centers, and that way of thinking goes back a long time.

There have been all sorts of tribal societies, conceiving of their own origins: some said they came out of Mother Earth at a particular place, the place they recognize as the center of their universe. Others spoke about migrating to a central place. Invariably, a center place has been a key philosophical ingredient in such deeply rooted cultural world-views.

Greek philosophers argued about such things for hundreds of years. In the 9th century BC Homer said Earth was a small flat disk. In the 7th Century Thales said it was log-shaped, floating upright on water, with people and everything else living on its flat top. In the 6th century Anaximenes said it was flat like a table, resting on air, and Xenophanes said it extended to infinity in every direction. From at least the 6th century B.C. onward, there have been some like Pythagoras, Philolaus, Heraclitus and Aristotle, who have argued that Earth is round. The prevailing opinion was always geocentric, that Earth, thus Man as well, was at the center.

Along came Copernicus and those following him who moved the center outward. First to the Sun and then still farther, but not until the early part of the present century did we have the vision that we are in a great galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy, and not at the center--rather something like 35,000 light years out from the center. With this, the very concept of center began to change. Around us are many other galaxies, and as we studied them we found that they tend to occur in clusters and that these clusters form bigger clusters. Now we study the "large scale structure of the universe," finding that galactic clustering followed to the extreme results in a distribution of matter in space that resembles the surfaces of giant bubbles.

Enter, now, Einstein's relativity and the cosmologists, those who, like the Greeks of old, deal with the really big questions. Today, they assimilate all the observational data we have into the very best description of not only what the universe looks like, but how it got that way, how it all began and even what might ultimately happen to it. In their most-up-to-the-moment view, there is no center at all to the universe. In the Big Bang beginning, not only matter, but space and time as well, were brought into existence in a momentary explosive event: all space expanded, matter formed and time flowed from that instant onward. From the beginning, as space itself was created, every place ballooned out from every other place so that all potential centers of observation have been moving out from each other and none of them is any more at the center than is any other. Now, from anywhere within the universe one could look out into all directions, feeling very much at the center, but there is no real center to the whole universe. None. One can think of it this way, your center is where you are, but someone looking around from way out in a remote place from you would seem to be just as much at the center. In relativistic cosmology, the very idea of a center is an invalid idea.

So, putting on our big-picture goggles, we live in a place without a center. We do not live in a geocentric universe, as once thought. We do not live at the center of the Solar System. We are not at the center of the galaxy, nor at the center of the cluster of galaxies ours belongs to, indeed, not in the center of anything. The center is nowhere to be found.

However, each one of us lives in an egocentric universe. Every human observer carries around a personal center of perception. We are aware of what is going on in our immediate environment in an intimate way. This is one aspect of the miracle of individuality. It has always been that way and I suppose it always will be. Even though this makes it difficult for us to understand such things as the universe not having a center, we are able to look around and be aware of a much larger environment than the one we can directly feel, taste, hear, smell and see. It is the melding of our egocentric views that has, after all, yielded the knowledge sufficient to know that there is no center to the universe, our real and ultimate home.

Copyright 1999-2004 The Clark Foundation.
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