(In)Significance   

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We had a lovely Christmas break in California visiting my parents. They are both crossing the 80 year mark this year, have been married for just over 60 years, and live comfortably in Mission Viejo, California.

Usually when we visit there is a lot of running around to do. I find the pace of traffic and the sameness of the various areas make me feel like a dog chasing it's tail. As beautiful as the area and its weather are, I normally can't wait to get out of there. This visit was different. We only made one extra trip and spent the rest of the time in my parents home relaxing, talking, and eating.

My parents are nice people and simple people. They would sooner visit a shopping mall than a museum. However, they know from experience that the museum is where we want to go, and they know that we will show them a good time, every time, we take them along with us. The Endeavour was recently delivered to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The delivery was an extraordinary feat of civil engineering and the saga was plastered all over the local news media while the shuttle was in transit. So all of us were equally excited about getting up close to the Endeavor.

It turns out that we were not the only one's with this idea. The museum was packed with people. The exhibits and tour were very good but also very crowded. We bought admission tickets for the Endeavor and for a showing of IMAX Hubble 3d. In Los Angeles you make reservations, unless robbing a bank. The tickets were very cheap and the process worked well for us.

The museum has not worked out the bugs of the traffic flow and signposts through the Endevour exhibit. The show includes actual program artifacts, including a very realistic control room from the Morton Thiokol engine control facility originally located nearby. Once you get to the hanger building which houses the Endeavour you come to appreciate the enormity of the shuttle program. Although there is no access to the inside of the shuttle, exhibits in the hall help explain what is inside, and they give you a good sense of proportion of the cockpit, work areas, and payload bay. The lighting and foot traffic flow around the shuttle really lend a sense of intimacy with the craft, despite the crowd of people around you.

Gloria, Arthur, and I have seen the IMAX Hubble show, albeit on the much smaller (and frankly kind of shabby) screen at the Clyde Tombough IMAX at the NM Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. This experience featured a full-sized screen and 3d glasses. Mom was reluctant to don the glasses, but I assured her the effects would be gentle as I hoped this would be so. They were. The movie is a very gentle story told from a human perspective. It begins with a spectacular little tour of a star nursery, and proceeds to fill in a bit of the history and mission of the Hubble. It shows us some of the most breathtaking findings of the telescope and explains some basic information about visual, radio, and x-ray observation of the universe.

On the way back to the car my folks thanked us again and again for sharing this experience with them. Mom said that they would arrange to come up and see this again with some of their friends. Then came the assertion that you, if you take non-sciencey friends and family to see thinks like this, will have heard before. Or maybe you have said it before. "It just makes me feel so small and insignificant. Do you feel that?"

No, I do not. Neither does Gloria. I explained that the fact that I have a mind able to grasp and appreciate the beauty and immensity of our universe amplifies my personal sense of significance. They did not buy that at all. So I am thinking about a better way to say it. I wonder if the difference in perspective is in our view of our relationship with the universe?

As I said, my parents are just about to turn 80. They were both raised in traditional religious homes. The predominant mind-set of their generation was one of apartheid from the animal world and from the universe, which was the exclusive domain of God. I have not seen the world in these terms since I was a child. Perhaps they still do. Although my mother will readily point out that she does not believe in heaven, hell, or original sin, I am not sure that she has thought much about her creator.

My creator is the universe. I am made of star-stuff. I am a product of the universe; one with no intention, plan, or design, other than coincidence and the laws of nature. I take comfort and hope from the fact that, to the best of my understanding, I (and you) are perhaps the most wonderfully surprising product of the universe we live in. In keeping abreast of the latest research, observations, and thoughts about our world I simply quiver in awe at who and where we are. What could be more significant than that?

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