Imagine for a minute being nestled up in the freezing cold window recess of an old stone tower on the top of a hill.
Imagine not knowing that at that moment, you were 48 hours away from having the most profound realization about the universe in your entire life, provided courtesy of none other than Stephen Hawking.
And imagine that moment: the beginning of revolutionizing the bourbon-soaked sh*t-show your life had become.
This is the catalyst that set me on the path to my awakening.
Steven Hawking was the most unlikely candidate to turn a fellow avowed atheist into a granola-munching, meditating, blissed out, lover of the universe.
Like so many of us know, these types of transformations occur completely against the odds. I grew up in an incredibly strict Christian fundamentalist church setting. We were taught that humans were scum, the lowest of the low, and innately worthless.
At some point or another, many of us embraced these beliefs because it is so easy to believe in our worthlessness, that we are flawed beings. In fact, any feelings of independent self-worth were viewed suspiciously, like a box of tissues in a man’s apartment.
Despite being so devout, by the time I was 24 my faith had fallen away. I no longer had a higher intelligence to seek guidance or answers from. Though I was happy to embrace my lack of belief in anything divine (honestly, it really did work for me), there was a tiny void right in the middle of my chest, in place of the God I had said goodbye to.
The one feeling I did still have was that feeling of worthlessness, as my life was in the middle of a downward spiral: divorce, working a job I hated, and so on. These things only exacerbated that feeling.
We know this script, don’t we?
At the time when things got really bad, I was picked to be on a science television program called “Genius by Stephen Hawking.” The premise was that Stephen Hawking could teach anyone, including me, to think like a genius.
I can hear my brother now: “Amanda, Stephen Hawking might have solved the black hole paradox and figured out quantum fluctuations in galaxy formation, but there is only so much that even he can do.” Indeed, Dave.
In May 2015, they sent a list of items to assemble for the filming. Black tops and trousers. Jacket and wool clothes for possible cold weather. Toiletries. And a passport.
Oooh, a passport? Sh*t just got interesting.
Jump forward to June. Everything was packed. Passport ready. They sent us an email with where we were going. Team one: the Nevada desert. Team two: a volcano in Indonesia. Team three (my team) was going to…Buxton. 35 miles from where I already lived.
Just go with it, they said. So I did.
Each episode had a complex scientific question the team members had to answer. All the experiments were designed to give us these little “aha moments,” hopefully leading to a massive breakthrough where we, even just for a moment, would think like a genius.
“What if we don’t have that moment?” I asked our director, Ben. He shrugged. No pressure then.
Our team had a really good question: What am I? As in, “What is this body, actually and physically besides (in my case) a slightly wrinkled and broken receptacle for grocery store-brand bourbon?”
All of our experiments centered on the beginning of the universe and where we fit in it.
The first experiment was a life-size Rube Goldberg machine—those chain reaction things where the boot kicks the bucket up which moves the fish over, and so on. We had to see how many times we could keep the whole thing going.
The “aha moment” was all about causality—every process in life on the macro and the micro level is like a machine. We are filled with millions of teeny-tiny machines. But where did they come from?
The second experiment involved these little hexagon-shaped magnetized pieces. When we put them in this weird shaking machine, they self assembled into balls.
The “aha moment” was that, given the right conditions, things innately know how to behave which is totally the opposite of my eight-year-old son. But where did these particles that knew how to behave come from?
The third experiment (my favorite) was in a teeny tent. There was a massive plastic globe that we filled with water, salt, amino acids, and then a couple of drops of a mystery bacterial substance. The next day, the globe contained countless points of light that looked exactly like a spiral galaxy that fell into the deep. We had made our own universe—each of those points of light was clusters of 1.3 trillion bacteria. The bacteria was 400 million years old and glowing.
I don’t know what the official term for the glowing was. I think “post-coital.”
The “aha moment” was that replication is the key to life, and once it begins, anything can and will happen. Well, not anything—I looked at my creation and the last thing I wanted to do was plant a tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle and tempt my creation to eat from it, hence messing them up forever. But where did this tendency for replication come from?
The fourth experiment was in the tower I mentioned at the beginning. We had to take this cool polymorph substance and replicate a shape over and over again. We took our shapes to the top of the tower and launched them from a catapult, toward a huge bullseye. None of them hit the target until the last one, which just kissed the outer ring.
The “aha moment” was that things must evolve and change from an original substance before a goal is reached.
The last experiment involved running a distance symbolic of how long humans have been in the universe. They didn’t tell us this would involve fireworks hidden on the ground right next to us at the start. When they set those bad boys off and they started popping all around us, I did what any American would: I hit the deck. “Just go with it,” they said. So I did. Each of those fireworks represented a chunk of time, and we ran while they went off to demonstrate the age of the universe.
The “aha moment” was that we humans are a mere blip in time.
So with all these events swirling in my mind, the questions kept turning:
What am I?
What is this flesh?
How is it possible that we, as humans, can on one hand be the result of the most complex series of machines pushing life forward over hundreds of millions of years, and on the other hand be completely unessential to the existence of the universe?
And it was this massive contradiction that gave me the granddaddy “aha moment.” The genius wasn’t in resolving that contraction—it was in acknowledging it. We are not scum, or the lowest of the low, and worthless like I was taught in my childhood.
Our bodies are literally the birth of time. All of us are physically made up of this insane moment where the will to live was so strong that a universe had to be born to accommodate it.
And in that moment, all the mess that life had become, the self-hatred and the fear seemed for the first time to be very, very quiet. And that little void in my chest filled up because I had physical connection to something larger than myself—something that couldn’t be denied.
It is something we can really all learn from if we focus on these ideas:
>> The universe is all those things I had learned in my experiment—the perfectly ordered machine, the establisher of laws that govern life, the bringer of life, and the enforcer of change and evolution—both for itself and for us.
>> We can feel this connection to something larger than ourselves, something benevolent and undeniable. It’s a physical connection that requires no faith and no dogma. No one can take it away from us.
>> It’s awe-inspiring as humans to be the blip in the universe and still have this remarkable relationship. This can surely nullify any worthlessness we may feel about ourselves.
>> We can understand that the reason why our bodies are physically made up of the universe is so that we can recognize the call when we’re ready to align with it. It’s a language, a vibration that is understood on the most basic cellular level.
So, I’m eternally grateful to Professor Hawking. Because he taught me about the undeniable physical and spiritual connection with a loving universe. He taught me that my value is undeniable. And he set me back on the path to alignment. Which I’m sure is what he intended all along.
Just kidding. He’d probably be thinking, “Um, that’s not what I intended at all.”
But I’m going with it. Pass the granola.
Author: Amanda Graham
Editor: Danielle Beutell
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Emily Bartranephant