Blink of an Eye

Recently, I listened to a radio story about the composer John Cage’s piece 4’33”, which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or more accurately, four minutes and 33 seconds in which the musicians are instructed to not to play their instruments. This distinction is important to note because Cage’s piece does not actually consist of silence. Instead, the audience is directed to listen to the sounds of environment all around them.

While one may think of 4’33” as a piece that is identical each time it is performed, in fact the opposite is true. A conventional song may be played differently by different musicians, but 4’33” is completely unique each time it is heard. The sound the audience hears one time might be the whoosh of the HVAC system in a hushed performance space, while birds chirp in the distance at an outdoor venue.

During the radio story, the commentator argued that Cage’s masterpiece forces us to appreciate the ephemeral nature of music. Noise travels via sound waves that require air. Those waves can only go so far before they dissipate. Even if you had the most powerful speaker imaginable, the sound would still stop at the edge of the thin bubble of atmosphere that surrounds our planet.

In contrast, light waves can travel billions of lightyears intact throughout the cosmos. In fact, recently scientists, including a team from Israel, detected the most distant single star ever seen at 12.9 billion light years away. The star was named Earendel, after the Old English name for “morning star”, which was also a source for a character named Eärendil created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his The Lord of the Rings.

While a single photon of light can reach us after traveling for 12.9 billion years, it needs some help. We are able to see galaxies that old fairly easily but detecting a single star in one of those galaxies is like picking a needle out of a haystack … from orbit. Scientists were helped in their endeavor by a technique theorized by Albert Einstein called gravitational lensing. Because massive objects create distortions in space-time, we can use that effect as a giant telescope to magnify something even more distant, in this case a single star in a primordial galaxy at the edge of the universe.

Some phenomena live forever in our world, while others fade almost as quickly as they begin. These are the two poles through which we journey in life. There are constants, like those photons of light that travel across the cosmos, and there are fleeting moments, like the sound waves that are heard for a brief moment and are gone. How blessed we are as human beings to stand in a unique position, able to see what has existed for eons but also able to hear what will be gone in the blink of an eye.

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