It was not the kind of public house Garbutt would have chosen to visit.
An assortment of real cask ales advertised on the handles of the high pumps behind the bar, synonymous with medieval and rural themes, bitters, stouts, and ciders, drank in low-ceilinged rooms frequented by students and teachers. Entertainment here was not Karaoke but intellectual discourse or drunken end of term sessions.
Dorsett walked through the first room which appeared to be the most popular and into the second which was only half full, where he found Mr Jameson sitting by himself reading his newspaper in the corner. He approached and noticed his drink almost finished.
‘Can I get you another one, Mr Jameson?’
‘Ah, hello Dorsett. Yes, I’ll have a dry cider if you don’t mind.’
When he returned Mr Jameson had closed his newspaper and pushed a nearby stool to the opposite side of the small round table for him.
‘So. Did you read those notes I gave you?’
‘Yes.’ said Dorsett, removing them from his bag. ‘I read them last night.’
‘You didn’t read them all, did you?’
‘I thought it best to. I got a bit lost in the details about organisms and bacteria, but the main parts I was interested in were the conditions that enabled life to begin. In fact, I find a strange connection between the beginnings of life to the origin of the Big Bang.’
Mr Jameson nodded agreeably.
‘Well, they say life began in a primordial chemical soup billions of years ago. That’s definitely a base of a kind and we have evidence to back it up, but the origin of the Big Bang that led to the universe? I don’t think we’ll ever answer that one.’
‘Or where it’s heading.’
‘I couldn’t answer that either.’
‘Sorry. I’m going off track a little, aren’t I?’
‘That’s OK. But it’s no use trying to find out things we’ll never find out about.’
Dorsett’s memory was jolted. Those same words made him feel better about Garbutt’s final conclusion regarding the nonsense question. It seemed a logical explanation.
‘I noticed in your papers that you numbered these so-called miracles. Does that mean there is an order of priority?’
‘We have to start with the Sun.’ he said. ’A million miles closer or further away would probably have made little difference when you consider there are ninety-three million miles between us. In something as big as the universe, that’s nothing. Our distance from it is often named the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, so-called because of the favourable space required for life to begin. Not too hot, not too cold.’
‘In other words,’ said Dorsett, re-reading the lines below him on the table, ‘It was crucial to allow liquid water.’
‘So that’s two coincidences.’
‘Is that what we’re going to call them now?’ asked Mr Jameson, ‘Coincidences?’
It was a mischievous rather than a critical mention so Dorsett replied in a like manner.
‘I think so. I don’t know why, but I feel a little uneasy with the word miracles.’
Mr Jameson made a suggestion.
‘Why don’t we play safe and call them conditions?’
‘Fair enough.’ agreed Dorsett. ‘Your next one mentioned the earth being a planet made of rock.’
‘Yes, because it might well have been a gas planet, such as Jupiter or Saturn. I think it’s self-evident that if life is to develop from sea to land then it needs a good foothold.’
Dorsett lined his finger down one of the papers on the table.
‘And this one here, where you only write down a heading without notes to follow; Chemistry composition.’
‘I kept it brief because it would have taken a lot more pages to put into detail. In short, it’s the assortment of chemical compounds within the earth’s atmosphere. Our atmosphere is made up of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Mars, for example, has a thin atmosphere not suitable for life.’
‘And next, you write about the Metallic Core. What’s that, exactly?’
‘The metallic core is at the centre of the earth and creates a magnetic field encircling it that protects us from the sun’s radiation.’
Dorsett paused to consider.
‘Don’t you think that’s astonishing? In the first place, the sun assists life by being there at the perfect distance to allow water. Then it has the potential to destroy it because of that same proximity, yet is prevented from doing so because there’s an invisible protective shield in place? Advantages and disadvantages play with one another like a game of chance, jigsaw pieces dropping to the floor, and falling into place to complete the picture. If these conditions aren’t preordained, they’re certainly fortuitous.’
‘It would seem so.’
Dorsett had hardly touched his drink and sipped it quickly in order to continue.
‘The average temperature on earth is 15c,’ responded Mr Jameson, ‘which, once again, thanks to the distance from the sun, aids the stability of life. On Venus, for example, it’s 462c which gives you a comparison. Our temperature allows water to exist, which in turn helps life to develop and diversify.’
‘You mention that next. The Diversity of living things.’
‘Yes. There have been some disastrous extinctions on our planet over the course of its development. We all know about the death of the dinosaurs. Sixty-five percent of all life disappeared when that happened, but we’ve had extinctions far worse. The diversity of life enabled what was left to continue. Life may have hung on by its fingertips, but it did hang on. A few more volcanic eruptions or incoming asteroids and we wouldn’t be here now talking about how lucky we were.’
Dorsett couldn’t resist reminding him.
‘Another option, Mr Jameson? Not miracles or conditions but luck?’
‘I have to admit, they do appear to be an unusual sequence of events that have little explanation. But life hates a vacuum. You only have to see how quickly abandoned buildings become overgrown with foliage to notice how it flourishes when left unrestricted.’
Mr Jameson turned his head away from a burst of sunlight that illuminated the small room brightly as it pierced a gap in the clouds. Customers raised their hands to shield their eyes from the glare as it reflected off the brass tables until a customer, cursing, walked over and closed the curtain, a malevolence resisted. It seemed an action that bordered on witlessness. The room was transformed to shade, free from starlight, with nothing but murmurs to make note of it.
‘The moon.’ said Dorsett, returning to the subject.
‘It’s our stabilizer,’ said Mr Jameson, ‘steadying the earth’s rotation on its axis. It also creates sea tides which in turn helped life develop and evolve. A kind of patient mother giving amphibious creatures a little hand up from the sea to land. It’s probably an incorrect analogy as the moon is in fact our child, having been formed from the debris that was a consequence of the earth’s collision with another planetoid during its early birth. But its presence is crucial, whichever way you look at it.’
Dorsett wondered if Mr Jameson was approaching the same inebriated state that Garbutt always experienced before falling into drunkenness. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself, rubbing his hands together as he urged him along.
‘I think the next one is the sun again, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It says here in your notes that it is singular and not binary.’
‘Lucky for us it is. Two of them would have been catastrophic. Stars usually come in pairs and that would cause a lot of problems with gravity as far as our own solar system is concerned. Asteroids and comets would be flying all over the place. Our sun, in comparison to others, is an average star and that’s an advantage, too. It means that its heat is fairly consistent. We get the odd solar flares, but nothing we can’t handle, up to now, anyway. And by the way, Dorsett, if anyone ever tells you on a grey day that the sun isn’t shining, please correct them and assure them that it is. Because if it wasn’t they’d have about eight minutes left to live. Can you believe I actually said that to someone once?’
‘What did they say?’
‘He thought I was mad.’
Mr Jameson stood up and shuffled out from the table.
‘Shall we have another? What would you like?’
‘I’ll have the same again, thanks.’
Dorsett was enjoying himself but was still annoyed by the man who had closed the curtains. Why did he curse? He could have uttered a surprised expression at the sudden invasion of light into the room but chose instead to swear at the very source that allowed him his life.
For the first time, Dorsett could begin to understand the religion of sun worship. Primitive perhaps, but reasonable. It offered warmth, enabled crops to grow, gave light and sustained life, and will one day take it away. It seemed cruel that science, with its obsession to analyse, explained its origin and the elements it was made of, and by doing so, demystified man’s last natural mother.
It said in Mr Jameson’s notes that the sun before it died would expand to an unimaginable size, vaporise the seas and burn the earth to ashes. Dorsett had heard of this scenario before in science books and every time it was mentioned, always finished on a comforting note; ‘But that won’t happen for billions of years and hopefully, by that time, man will have moved on to populate other planets.’ It seemed an arrogant assumption. The brittle clinking of pint glasses on the table jogged Dorsett away as Mr Jameson returned from the bar.
‘The next one I think you’ll be familiar with.’ he said.
Dorsett found it on the page and understood: The Ozone layer.
‘I think all schoolchildren will know this one.’ he said.
‘I hope they don’t.’ replied Mr Jameson. ‘I’d prefer them to remain ignorant of it.’
Dorsett’s frown was an answer in itself.
‘I’m serious.’ said Mr Jameson. ‘The consequence for future generations doesn’t bear thinking about if it’s destroyed. It almost makes me glad I’m in my later years. But I worry about my grandchildren. Here we have our own protective layer against the Sun’s radioactive rays, and we’re destroying it daily.’
‘But we’re aware of it now.’ said Dorsett, half out of hope.
‘Yes, most of us know about it, but our political leaders, the only people who can actually do something about it, appear to be indifferent to the fact. Some of them don’t even believe it to be true. How can we expect to fix it if we can’t agree with one another that it’s even happening?’
Mr Jameson hardly realised his voice had grown loud and looked about the room furtively.
‘I’m sorry, I forget myself. But it seems it’s been turned into a political debate now instead of an ecological emergency and when that happens, you kind of know that nothing’s going to be done about it anytime soon.’
Dorsett knew the influence of the drink was beginning to take effect but felt gladdened that it brought a little honesty from a man who he suspected wouldn’t normally speak about such subjects emotionally. He spoke to Dorsett as if sharing a secret.
’On such an issue there is either acknowledgement of the danger or denial. Higher stakes could not be possible. What kind of idiot burns the roof of his house without seeing the risk to his security? And in both poles, I might add, not just one, as was first believed. It’s like someone giving us a reminder in case they think we missed the first clue. And even if these people doubt the consequences of these catastrophes, is it worth the risk? Yes, we are beginning to take it more seriously, but I have a horrible feeling that we will reach a point where it will be too late to reverse it.
Imagine a car moving towards a precipice. We see the drop in the distance and put the brakes on but it’s too late. Our momentum carries us over. We’ve been travelling so fast for so long that we didn’t give ourselves time or room to prevent the disaster. So over we go, every passenger on the earth. Crazy.’
Mr Jameson took a long sip of his drink and then looked at his watch to rush away from his doomsday reflection.
‘Where have we got to?’
‘Water. But I think we covered that, didn’t we?’
‘Not exactly. Water exists because of temperatures and the suitable distance from the sun, but we haven’t discussed it in relation to the cradle of life. It arrived through a combination of what was already available on earth and the rest in icy comets from outer space some four billion years ago. It gives you some idea of how much time was needed for the earth to form because that’s a lot of collisions over a long period of time, and just as well because a little water may not have been enough. The more the better and two-thirds of our planet is covered with it. If Jupiter is a gas planet then it would be accurate to say that we live on a water planet. That’s why we’re called the Blue Planet, an apt title: Because no water, then no life. At least not as we know it. What’s so funny?’
‘It reminded of that comment I’ve heard before in sci-fi films. The end of life as we know it.’
‘I’m familiar with it, too. But it’s not such a ridiculous statement as we can only speak of life from our perspective. Maybe life can begin and exist without water, but we can only make our judgements on what we know about it here.’
’On the next subject, you’ve scribbled a bracketed line under the word Jupiter and wrote in it ‘vacuum’.
‘Yes. The Shoemaker-Levy comet was a big dirty snowball that broke into nine pieces and slammed into Jupiter. Comets like that could easily strike our own planet if it wasn’t for Jupiter’s massive gravitational field. That’s why I put in vacuum as a heading because that is what Jupiter is, a giant vacuum cleaner that cleans up those giant rocks flying all over our solar system.’
‘Do you think it could ever miss one that’s meant for us?’
‘Well, we’ve had plenty in the past. I know one thing: I’d rather go out in a catastrophic explosion from a gigantic rock than die slowly under a depleting ozone layer. Wouldn’t you?’
‘I suppose so.’ reflected Dorsett.
‘Imagine.’ said Mr Jameson, ‘Seeing it approach the second before it struck. What an event that would be. And the most sobering thing about it is that there’s no guarantee it will never happen.’
Dorsett watched him stare into his glass which was already almost empty. He moved on.
‘The final four headings aren’t numbered and you’ve bracketed them together under the heading External.’
’That’s because they’re more related to astronomy than biology, although the four conditions are important as far as humanity’s concerned. These are more to do with the security of our planet rather than the offset of life, but as I see it if the stage isn’t there in the first place, then nothing worthwhile can happen.
The first part is the stability of the solar system. Four and a half million years ago it was chaotic, rocks, and comets colliding all over the place. We seem to have calmed at the right time.
The second is the location in the Milky Way. We’re situated in a place called the Orion Arm which is not too close to a massive black hole at the centre, and any good distance away from a black hole is good news. To put it short, we live in a nice location if we’re talking about property development. If we wanted to buy a house there, it would be very expensive.
Thirdly, our galaxy is also a good size in a universe with much bigger ones. We are in fact about to collide with another galaxy, the Andromeda, but it won’t happen until another three billion years. So right there you have two positive locations in a violent universe.
Finally, one condition which may or may not be true, which is why you’ll notice I didn’t elaborate on it. The stability of a quantum universe. Some scientists believe that just like there are lots of planets and stars and galaxies, so there are lots of universes. I think it would be foolish to deny it. Let me tell you, looking into the cosmos is like entering a doorway into the engine room of a machine we’ll never see.’
Dorsett felt a journey had been circled. It all came back to the limits, or boundaries of universes, the same nonsense question Garbutt struggled with. The impossible question, he renamed it. The answer to it was way out of reach and always would be. He collected the notes, placed them back in the folder, and handed them over. Mr Jameson jammed them tightly into his shoulder bag.’
‘I enjoyed this discussion, Dorsett. Not many people want to talk Astronomy or science over a drink. They find the subject tedious.’
‘I think it’s all the equations, Mr Jameson. They’re like a code no one, apart from physicists, can understand. But to talk about it in lucid language kind of strips it bare. I’ve always thought the deeper you go into the details of a puzzle, the further you get from the solution.’
‘But without those equations, we would never get to a point where these discussions would even happen. Maybe we need a separation between the diggers of facts and the concluders. Physicists can of course do both but maybe someone with a superficial understanding could see something the academics missed, in the same way, that a man can’t see the wood for the trees. But you can’t define or understand a structure if you don’t know its materials, let alone predict what it will do.’
‘Mr Jameson. I’m going to be a little rude and ask you another personal question.’
Mr Jameson looked at him warily.
‘You’ve caught me at a vulnerable time. But go ahead.’
‘All these conditions we’ve talked about: Do you believe they’re designed or accidental? I mean, it seems that it would have been a lot easier for us not to be here. There were so many opportunities for us not to come this far.’
‘It’s not exactly the question I thought you were going to ask. I thought you were going to ask if I was religious.’
‘I already asked you that, didn’t I?’
‘You did. And I didn’t answer that question, either. But what you’ve asked me seems the same inquiry placed a little further back from the target. So if you don’t mind, I’ll answer it a little further back.’
Mr Jameson looked down at the table in concentration.
‘If I was a betting man and advised by a reputable gambler to place all my money on the chance that life would appear on this planet, after having been told of all the odds against it, I’d shoot him for his insanity. It shouldn’t happen.’
Dorsett urged him on.
‘Yet here we are.’
’Yes. Here we are. Even though we shouldn’t be, that’s the point. Every bone in my body says this whole world and everything in it, is designed. Now I don’t mind believing that. But what I struggle with is what designed it. That’s when opinions turn into fantasy. Yet because the odds against it ever happening in the first place are fantastic, then who’s to say that we’re only being consistent in our instincts?’
’You said you struggled with what designed it. I noticed you didn’t say who.’
‘No, I didn’t, did I?’
‘Did you want to?’
‘I don’t think so. If religion claimed the big bang as God’s great start in life I think I’d have more respect for it. But they ridicule themselves by claiming all of us originated from a single marital union in the Garden of Eden, or that the world was created in seven days. Why didn’t they just say, look, God ignited the big bang but we don’t know why. That’s more believable even though there’s no concrete evidence to grab at.’
‘So maybe the description, Christian scientist, isn’t a contradiction in terms after all?’
‘Maybe it isn’t. All I know is that science in no way helps to destroy the wonder of life that religious people always claim is theirs alone to feel. There’s far more mystery and wonder in the truth of science than any holy book. We live in an amazingly diverse world and yet the more we find out about it, the more we appear to feel guilt for moving away from some divine being. All I can say is that I’m keeping my options open. I’m pretty dismissive about seven-day quick fix planets, but I have no explanation for that moment of birth, the singularity. I can’t answer that and if anyone tries to, then they’re too damn big for their boots. I can live quite comfortably with my ignorance, thank you.’
It seemed a rebuff at an attempt to have him confess something he was reluctant to admit. Dorsett offered another drink as an apology.
‘Can I get you one for the road?’
Mr Jameson looked up a little startled and seemed glad to return to friendliness.
‘No thank you. My wife will be here shortly. I’ll make this last if you don’t mind.’
Dorsett stood up to go and Mr Jameson rose to shake his hand.
‘Thanks Mr Jameson.’
‘Don’t mention it. I hope I’ve been of some help. Say hello to Sam for me.’
Dorsett walked out of the pub into the fresh air, squinting from the slight pain behind his eyes as they adjusted to the light. In spite of the rewarding experience of listening to Mr Jameson, he still felt irritated by the cursing curtain closer. What kind of idiot blocks out the brilliance of a life-giving star just because he can?
Dorsett sat at his writing-table.
He’d made up his mind to heed Carol’s advice and take a break from writing, but after his meeting with Mr Jameson, his mind was bursting with ideas, new rhymes, and countless stanzas that were waiting to take flight. He remembered what Mr Jameson said: Looking into the cosmos is like entering the engine room of a machine we’ll never see.
On three different occasions, he’d discovered negative responses to his original search relating to the expanding universe. Garbutt the dreaming drunkard said we were born ignorant and not meant to know. Dorsett also seemed to agree with him after considering the lines written by him and his collaborative so-called creator Mason, aka Steve: Too small, too slow, and too brief in a place too big. And Mr Jameson, an academic who taught Earth Science, no less, and who had not even been prompted to give a response, said: It’s no use trying to find out things we’ll never find out.
Dreamer, creator, teacher. It wasn’t the worst assembly to help solve the nonsense question. It appeared there was a dead end to some things. Time to move on.
Even without realising, Dorsett had picked up his pen and wrote a line on the whiteness below him. He had spent so long in thought that the sound of pen on paper was irresistible:
Design or chance?
This was not a nonsense question, certainly not an impossible one because there were available facts already discovered and he had been told them. As the details in mathematical equations might not be necessary to settle the expansion of the universe enigma, so he believed that the small print in the conditions for life on Earth need not be required. He recognised the intricacies and symbiotic systems in nature, as did most people who weren’t blind.
Nature was a language and like a language could be understood. Connective processes were evident, sunlight to plants, plants to oxygen, bees and flowers, weather cycles, and food chains. Too much detail could be deflective, deviating him from what was a much larger landscape. Mr Jameson had explained to him the conditions necessary for life and the dozen or so mentioned sounded more like the natural science equivalent of the Ten Commandments.
Maybe it wasn’t so much a conflict with religion as a dislocation from it, like a bone in a body that had been knocked out of place by centuries of misguided debate. Another tweak needed in place of major surgery, another poor man’s genius required for the solution. He would need to see Garbutt again. It was no longer a question of where something was going, but whether or not it was planned that way.