That’s a dirty word to a physicist. We don’t believe in destiny, except on the largest scales. We think that the sun will enter a red giant phase in about five billion years. We believe we’ll still see the same constellations in about the same place in the sky a year from now. We know just when the sun will rise tomorrow. But we don’t know when the next war will break out or when someone will die. We don’t even know who will be sleeping with who, in a month or a week. There’s a lot we don’t know and we can’t predict.
Destiny is a faith that somehow we can know what to expect. It’s not based on logic and data. It’s superstition, built on hope and desire. To a physicist it’s not theory or truth. It’s just a myth or a wish. For those of us who think about it more than we should, it’s an addiction, akin to pornography.
As humans, our minds are full of thought. We see where we are. We wonder what’s next. We look at options and choices. We wonder where each one might lead. Then we create a story for each, and we think of where we might be, in a week, or a year, or a decade. We imagine the stories to span the frothy sea of uncertainty to that place where we might want to be. We compare the price of the tolls to the rewards of the journey. Sometimes we make a choice, and sometimes we just sit back in the chair, and wait for it to take us somewhere.
We all like to listen to stories of heroes, like Joseph Campbell would tell. Heroes are born in unusual circumstances. Prophecies precede or follow. Symbolic events occur. Then follows a trail of destiny. Believers in destiny look for these kinds of things. That’s how they know what to follow. That’s how they know they’re on to something. But as physicists, we know that’s not for us. We are the party of Chaos and Doubt. We’re not supposed to believe in such things; after all, we’ve got that uncertainty principle.
As a backslider in the faith of Chaos and Doubt, I sometimes think about destiny. I think about the single photon emitted from an atom of a galaxy made up of a hundred billion stars located ten billion light years away. It spreads out in a feeble giant wave that gets to our Hubble and dumps all its energy in a single cell of a silicon detector; a connection between cause and effect, between two atoms sixty billion trillion miles and ten billion years apart. What an amazing event! With events such as this, Hubble collects enough light to make images, which become the beautiful pictures that we use to create the stories we tell, to satisfy our unquenchable need to know.
This morning just halfway between the Vernal Equinox and Good Friday, a tiny new baby was born. Though many were born then, only this one came with a message for me. His first name was Forest, as in Forest Gump, but his last name will be Scott, and soon I’ll hold him and whisper his name, and we’ll bond, and I’ll think about destiny, and I’ll wonder. What if there is a destiny? Why did my daughter set out on that search for that thing she must have? Why did she need to adopt a third, with two so healthy and fine? What led to that moment of passion between the birth mother and a man that none of us know? Not a virgin birth, but unusual just the same. Could this be marking the start, of some tale of a hero, on some kind of trail of destiny?
I’ll mark this unlikely photon, and save it with others I’ve known. Maybe by my last days, I’ll be able to make them into a picture that will give me a story to tell.