April 26, 2010

There’s GLASS Between Us

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Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans. — Douglas Adams

Chalk is academia’s paint brush. The most beautiful ideas I’ve ever encountered have always involved a smooth, cylindrical clump of calcium sulfate being dragged across a blackboard. I’ve had lectures via over-head transparencies, power points and even chalk’s bastard step child: the dry erase marker. But these experiences have always been subpar, if not painful.

Sidewalk chalkings have never proved quite as profound, but often they’re just as informative. The CallBaxx are having a concert soon, and Neil Patrick Harris may or may not be running for Student Trustee. Or so the sidewalk tells me.

This particular spring, the sidewalk has decided to step up its game. No longer content informing you of the latest a capella concert, the sidewalk has decided to address the existential needs of all those who lower their gaze whilst walking to class.

I blame the Gideons for this. Back during Easter, they stationed themselves at every entrance to campus to hand out little green Bibles. I took one of these little gems, and stuck it in my bag. Now when someone disagrees with my answer on a problem set, I whip out the Good Book and begin pounding it on the table screaming “Do not question His wisdom, son!”

An absent-minded student must have dropped a Bible onto the sidewalk. The sidewalk, like most who are constantly stepped on by those more fortunate, was already a religious fellow. Now he had the means to share his faith with the campus at large, and thus began the chalkings. And these were not the bland, white, erasable chalkings of the scientist or mathematician. No my friends. God spoke through the sidewalk in brilliant shades of yellow, orange, green and purple. His work would not diminish under the footsteps of nonbelievers. Nor would His message wash away under a gentle spring rain (though perhaps a downpour would work).

But despite His infinite wisdom, the sidewalk never really had anything brilliant to say. In fact, it just sort of sounded like something a stoned Jewish hippy in ancient Palestine would jot down in his moleskin. There were pronouns capitalized haphazardly, and emphasis was placed on the most mundane parts of the sentence:

Jesus Stood and said with a loud voice: “IF anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and DRINK!” — John 7:37

And this is useful how?

Fortunately, the sidewalk was still not satisfied. Evidently, another absent-minded student had dropped some Richard Dawkins on his cold, concrete face, for his reading pleasure. The sidewalk began having doubts about this whole Christianity thing. Harsh Ithaca winters, dealing with constant salting and frost wedging had left him questioning his faith. Suddenly there were new people worth quoting, like founding fathers:

I have found Christian dogma UNINTELLIGIBLE. — Ben Franklin

Soon the age-old battle of doubt versus faith was on full display across campus. Jesus this and Sagan that … it became clear to me that the sidewalk was having some sort of midlife crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than outside Olin Library, where the sidewalk began re-deriving the laws of physics, beginning with Newton: F = ma

moving on to thermodynamics: dE = dq – dW

and culminating in quantum mechanics: HΨ = EΨ

Armed with the scientific and mathematical achievements amassed by civilizations across the globe over thousands of years, the sidewalk suddenly found himself capable of understanding the mechanisms of life, the origin of the universe and his place in the cosmos. It was sensory overload. It was beautiful. He decided to quote the immortal wisdom of one of Cornell’s most famous professors:

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. — Carl Sagan

Now, many question the ability of science to truly satisfy existential needs. After all, an equation can tell you why the sunset is pink and orange, but can it truly convey what happens in a meadow at dusk? Perhaps, thought the sidewalk, this is where Christianity comes in. But then, thought the sidewalk, is that really the case? Are closeted virgins in women’s clothing, who spend their lives in church basements making children memorize stories of snakes, apples and giant boats really properly equipped to examine the beauty of our existence?

No, thought the sidewalk. They are not. He decided a biologist studying the complex interplay of all creatures in our diverse ecosystem was probably better armed to speak of beauty. He decided a journalist dodging bullets in war-torn Middle Eastern cities had more to say about morality and courage. He decided a novelist bumming his way to Kathmandu could more accurately contemplate why we exist. But most of all, he decided the beautiful, cyclical paradigms of the Far East, carefully constructed over millennia, were better suited for his spiritual needs:

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. — The Dalai Lama

Oddly enough, no one ever stopped to ask the calcium’s opinion concerning this whole affair. The calcium atoms in our chalk were born over four billion years ago within the core of a massive red giant star. The dying star exploded in a supernova and scattered the calcium through the cosmos. It then fell into the gravitational sinkhole of a young star we call the Sun. It swirled about in space, before collecting onto the cooling glob of iron and silica we call Earth. Over billions of years, it formed into sedimentary rock, before being extracted and processed into those smooth cylindrical lumps so cherished by men who sing without instruments. And then one day, it was scraped across a pavement, to produce quotes from a species that, on a cosmic scale, will exist for the blink of an eye.

What were those calcium atoms, perhaps as numerous in a single clump of chalk as all the stars in the Universe, thinking? My guess is this:

Lord, what fools these mortals be! — The Bard

Munier Salem is a former Sun Assistant Design Editor and founded the Science section. He is a senior in the College of Engineering. He may be reached at msalem@cornellsun.com. Critical Mass appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Munier Salem