In times like these, when waves of corrupt politicking threaten to drown us all in a putrid soup of lies, half-truths, and malicious fabrications, it’s fun to take refuge in some pure and brilliant prose — like that of American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his aptly named little volume, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” I went there for some peace of mind, and highly recommend it.
With our new election only days away, what I found to be the most compelling factoid in the whole book, gleaned from 200 densely written pages, actually came in the first 26. Although I can’t follow the science very well, there was this one bit that struck me as a powerful metaphor. To provide you some context: Going back to about a trillionth of a second after the original big bang, there is an “interplay of matter” when photons (massless light) “spontaneously convert their energy into matter-antimatter particle pairs, which immediately… annihilate, returning their energy back to photons.” Okay so far?
Now in a “kind of quark cauldron,” Tyson says, “strong theoretical evidence suggests… a remarkable asymmetry, in which particles of matter barely outnumbered particles of antimatter: by about a billion-and-one to a billion.” At this stage we’re at a millionth of a second after the big bang, and “the slight matter-antimatter asymmetry… now passed to the hadrons…”
Don’t worry if you aren’t following this, because in all honesty, I’m not really sure what a hadron is anyway. Just bear with me now, because we’re almost at the punch line. “For every billion annihilations,” Tyson continues, “a single hadron had survived.” And – wait for it – those surviving hadrons became “the ultimate source of matter to create galaxies, stars, planets, and petunias.” And us, of course.
I sense that you are getting restive, but here comes his punch line: In the first second after the big bang, “without the billion-and-one to a billion imbalance between matter and antimatter, all mass in the universe would have self-annihilated, leaving a cosmos made of photons and nothing else — the ultimate let-there-be-light scenario.”
Now, with apologies to Tyson for having mangled his story, what I want your takeaway to be at this point is about the meta-galactic importance of just a single particle of matter. These modern theorists of the origin of everything have produced a model in which just one quantum particle (per billion) made the difference between the universe as we are coming to understand it, and no universe whatsoever. Absent that one in a billion extra particle of matter, the worlds we have today would never have come into being; creation would have ended in an undifferentiated bath of light without life. Think of it: for every billion particles of antimatter, a billion-and-one particles of matter: and so, here we are. One particle in a billion made all the difference. Talk about the power of one!
And that is why, on election day on Tuesday, you have to go out and vote. I hope you will vote for a list that espouses love, sharing, partnership, kindness, imaginative thinking, and mutually respectful working alliances with “the other.” Or at least pick a party courageous enough to aspire to a future beyond forever-war. Please do not vote for the same cynical hate-mongering agendas that the usual suspects have been peddling for too long now. Your one vote — who knows? – could be what rescues us from our intolerable cauldron of… just annihilating each other all the time. Your one vote could deliver the slight asymmetry that could give us (and “them”) a whole new world and a life worth living. So please vote, and make it a vote for a different future – because, in the dance of matter and antimatter, in real life, in real time, your vote ultimately does matter. Go out there and vote for your life.