The Corner

The World Ash? No, a Cosmic Oakes

According to French critics, writes Father Edward Oakes, S.J., the most beautiful sentence ever composed in the French language is Pascal’s “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” (Former French schoolchildren would have laughed out loud when private eye Lemmy Caution, in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Alphaville, was asked about how he felt on his intergalactic trip, and responded, “The silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” It’s a cultural in-joke similar to the English-language ad a friend of mine designed for a gym: “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt.”)

Father Oakes’s essay has to do with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, a question on which he wisely declares himself agnostic. But he does ask us to consider the following: “Since radio waves . . . travel at the speed of light, surely we should have picked up by now signals from the exo-versions of I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show. But so far, nothing has been picked up — despite numerous toilsome efforts of those dedicated drones who check their computers and radio telescopes every night at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. No ET seems to be phoning here.”

But that would depend – wouldn’t it? – on how far the signals would have to travel? According to Wikipedia, even just the “observable matter” in the universe is spread out “over a space at least 92 billion light years across.” The most recent estimate of the age of the universe is about 14 billion years, which in turn would mean that the vast majority of precincts in the universe have yet to be heard from.

I recognize that there is more in both heaven and earth than there is in my philosophy, but I’m nonetheless not holding my breath expecting any messages from the directions the telescopes are pointing.  The truth is out there, as far as I’m concerned — just not in the silence of those infinite spaces, but rather in the silence beyond the silence of those infinite spaces. And that hope is something the hypothetical citizen of the most distant star system, if he or she exists, has in common with me, even if nothing else should unite us.


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