I am neither a scientist nor a mathematician, preferring to understand the Cosmos through poetry. Einstein and Stephen Hawking baffle me. As a child I balked at the very concept of ‘x’ in algebra and, years later, I was furious with the kind person who tried to explain the Northern Lights to me as they swept in majesty across the black Atlantic sky.
I was indeed awed by the starry heavens and patiently endured the overtures of those who tried to teach me that some of these luminaries were ‘stars’ and some were ‘planets’ but it was just all too big out there. The planet Earth was as much as I could even try to handle. Sometimes, however, my prosaic boundaries shifted in spite of me, like when I learned that the light now reaching us from the Pole Star actually left that star three hundred years ago! That bit of science was almost too much for me and, for a while, I felt as vulnerable as a tortoise without its shell.
Then, one day, my five-year-old daughter came home excitedly from school. Did I know how the world began, she demanded, between gulps of her drink. No, not really, and I went on secretly reviewing the plot of a short story I hoped to write. “Oh, Mum”, and she seemed astonished at my, sadly apparent, lack of interest, “Mum, the world started with the Big Bang—like this!” and she slapped the biscuit-tin hard on the table. “That’s how it began, Mrs. Cole says!”
Anyway, like a lot of important things, the ‘Big Bang’ got forgotten about by all, it seemed, except myself. ‘Science’ was intruding again! What mighty forces had once gathered together in the primordial darkness, only later to shatter, explode and send themselves careening through the black abyss, one tiny piece ending up as ‘Planet Earth’ where we now rode our bikes and went shopping. When I was small, they’d said then also that Earth would come to an end and that terrified me even though it wouldn’t be for billions and billions of years.
Anyway, some weeks after the ‘Big Bang episode’ in the kitchen, we went together on a family hike on this very Earth, trudging serenely along a little rutted path lined by fresh green trees, their sap flowing, the ‘Big Bang’ and the Armageddon having both mercifully receded. Then I heard the small five-year-old voice at the end of our procession addressing the trees, it seemed, and the sky too, for it appeared to address no person in particular: “When will the world end?” it asked. I said nothing. The others ahead of me grunted. No one knew the answer to the childish, trivial question. Children were odd, the things they come out with! She was too small to understand.
A couple of hundred yards along, the voice was heard again, triumphant this time: “Well, I know when the world will end.” I stopped and looked in some exasperation at the small, pudgy ‘would-be’ scientist, hot in her red sandals, desultorily trailing some wilted bluebells. Without looking at us and seeming again to address the world around her, she announced in the most matter-of-fact voice I have ever heard: “The world will end when all the ladies stop having babies.”
And here, at last, I had an answer now that neither whipped me off into black nothingness nor assaulted my poetic sensitivities.
Norma MacMaster is a writer based in North County Dublin, Ireland.