At seven, as the firstborn child of a physically and socially isolated post-war family in rural New Zealand, I cradled nightly the overarching vastness of the stars to bed with me; a stone I clung to through the infinity of space and time that stretched between wakefulness and sleep.
Filled with the universe, I would await sleep by trying to image the silence of total absence before the universe gained an existing presence. Nothing - no space, no time, no light, the total absence of everything - strained to take conceptual form within my childhood brain. Absence of light was easy but then I battered my mind against an easily imaged darkness but without form. Was it cubic, conical or spherical? Space requires boundaries. Can nothing be contained? But to be contained within one of these necessitated form and surely the void has no form and thus cannot change.
For hours I would lie in no-sleep trying to come to terms with an infinite sphere with no centre and no circumference until my being slipped into that place which was no-place.
Many years later I would read Jorge Luis Borges' essay "The Fearful Sphere of Pascal" in which the author explored the possibility "that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors." Giordano Bruno, for instance, would come to state exultantly in 1584 "We can assert with certitude that the universe is all center, or that the center of the universe is everywhere and the circumference nowhere". Borges then suggested that Pascal would darken this image with the words "Nature is a fearful sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
Stephen Hawking later misrepresented that Pope John Paul II had said to him “It’s OK to study the universe and where it began. But we should not inquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God.”
Valuing the omnipotent reach of physics and mathematics, Hawking and associates have continued to explore the applicability of quantum theory to the instant before time and space came into being at the big bang. (I continue to struggle with the idea that the beginning can have a "before".) They came up with a model of the big bang according to the theory of general relativity that was developed to take into account quantum effects which they called the No Boundary Proposal.
The words the Pope actually addressed to Hawking were "Any scientific hypothesis on the origin of the world, such as the hypothesis of a primitive atom from which derived the whole of the physical universe, leaves open the problem concerning the universe’s beginning. Science cannot of itself solve this question: there is needed that human knowledge that rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; there is needed above all the knowledge that comes from God’s revelation."
with one last breath
nothing slips out of