“We are now heading to a top-secret facility,” a man in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses discloses.
“You’ve never heard of this laboratory before and probably will never hear of it again,” continues his colleague, also in a lab coat and sunglasses.
Lucaz and Aleksandra could have been undercover agents but they are a part of a Polish group of scientists and artists – the Institut B61. They are in Goa, India’s smallest state, to present the Evolution of the Stars at the Story of Space festival. B61 is known for their experiential learning projects. We have no idea what awaits us but our group of twenty-five is curious to learn.
Formal learning is classroom and textbook centric. With experiences like the Evolution of the Stars, Institut B61 hopes to make learning science more accessible and fun.
“We want you to experience the universe more intimately,” Janek Swierkowski, assistant professor at B61 told me earlier. He believes western scientific ideas of space and the cosmos are beginning to align with old eastern philosophies. Evolution of the Stars is an attempt to get people thinking of our place in the universe.
For thousands of years, humans have been curious about the stars. They’ve wondered about those celestial bodies. They concocted all sorts of stories around them, religions sprang up based on the stars and men and women toiled in tune with the twinkling of stars. Stars have raised questions in the human mind about the after life. Homo Sapiens have always believed stars, like gods and diamonds are eternal.
A bus whisks us from the Luis Gomes garden in Panjim and heads onto the Ribandar causeway. A short ride later, it pulls up outside an old heritage building overlooking the Mandovi river. We get off and head into the sprawling structure.
“On this journey,” we are told, “you will witness the evolution of a star just like our sun. Keep together, you could easily get lost in the void.”
On the first-floor landing, several thousand postcard sized portraits surround us. People lost in the void? We learn these are people of Panjim. Random people from the streets.
Of the thousands of residents of Panjim, how many do you think know each other? – About ten percent – Ten percent? Think of the connections possible. Think of the projects possible. Think of the families possible when two of these thousands meet and interact.
There are trillions and trillions of particles in the universe. And when some of these come together, we have the birth of stars.
I think to myself: I was born in the city of Bombay. Through a series of random events that were set in motion when the universe was born, I migrated to Goa, the land of my ancestors. The same series of events led me to meet a girl born in Goa. We met by chance at an office in Panjim. And we fell in love and married.
Chance? Fate? Destiny? Does it really matter what we call it?
The magnitude of that thought barely sinks in when we are led down a corridor and into another room where we witness a curious spectacle. It’s the venue of a Polish-Goan wedding. The bride, dressed in a lace wedding gown is looking for a groom. Blindfolded, she selects one. Drums roll and a four-piece Goan band plays. It’s time for a celebration and the crowd is enthused in dance.
Two particles come together in a cloud of gas somewhere in the universe and when conditions are just right, a star is born. The new star goes through the most active phase of its lifetime – the generation of light.
I’m beginning to understand this experience. And for the first time, I put a face to a star, making it more accessible, unlike any learning in school. I look down at my son, holding my hand. He’s taking it all in voraciously. So are my two other kids, also in our group.
We enter a tiny room. A man, bare chested with red face paint, paces atop a table in the centre. Psychedelic music blasts and strobes flash at over a thousand times a minute. The small room can barely contain the throbbing. It’s also hot with us packed inside. It’s a sense of what we might experience in the core of a star. Only a few billion times brighter, louder and hotter. Paper streamers explode around us. Under the strobes it looks like a stop motion film – surreal. The performer in the center leaps wildly in trance moves. The crowd joins in, bobbing to the music. Streamers are now everywhere. Pure chaos. The core of a star.
Our sun is in this phase. And so is my son, I note as I watch him bounce around eagerly tossing streamers in the air. Our sun is roughly halfway through its life, as it burns hydrogen and produces light in its core. But while my son will live another eighty to ninety years at best, our sun will continue for a few thousand million years. But like my son, at some point the hydrogen will be gone and so will its life.
We are now led into a large room, in contrast to the one we just left. It’s also a lot cooler. A man with a Spanish guitar is sitting in the centre. We settle down on the floor before him. Then the lights go out. Red rays emanate from behind the guitarist, casting eerie shadows around. He strums the six-string. His voice is hypnotic. The words are lost on me, but the feeling is not.
This is the beginning of the end for our sun. It will get bigger and redder, enveloping nearby planets. Life on earth will have ended long before. It seems a long time since that joyous wedding. A few billion years. The contrast is disconcerting.
From here we are led into a room with little glowing sticks against the walls. At the centre, engulfed in UV light, our professor switches on a machine. It whirs and rotates and in a few moments wisps of cloud-like matter blows upward. Our star has begun its slow death. It sheds its outer layers to become a planetary nebula. Even a dying star will continue to glow for millions of years. But it does not generate any light. Come to think of it, we too shed a lot on our way out. Receding hairlines and fading memories are just the beginning. In the end we are left with nothing – not one bit of our possessions.
The professor carefully rolls the fluffy clouds onto a stick and offers it to those around him.
“This is the only time you will be able to eat a dying star,” he says. It’s cotton candy. It’s not every day that we get to eat a nebula.
Down another corridor once more, through a doorway and we enter a pitch-dark room. I can’t see the person standing beside me. At the far end, suspended in the air, dimly glowing in UV light, is the shape of an old man, reclined and wrapped loosely in a shroud. He’s the only thing visible in the room. He moves. It’s barely perceptible. Sounds of prayer bowls and wind chimes envelop us. It is ethereal.
And thus, will our sun spend the last days of its lifetime – a few million years – glowing dimly in its least energetic state until it finally fades into oblivion.
I knew stars have a life cycle. But never thought of them as something with life. Now, standing in that dark room resonating with sacred tones, an old man dangling in mid-air, I see our sun as a living thing. We are in search of life in the universe. But the universe is life – stars are born, they live, they die.
Do they go to a star heaven? Or do they cease to exist? And what of life around us? Trees live and die. Animals live and die. Their energy creates conditions for new growth.
The universe is alive and dying around us all the time.
Why then, do we humans feel separated from this universe? Why are we haughty enough to believe that of all the life in this immense universe, we alone will live on in some afterlife? What makes us so different from the stars from which we are made?
We are finally out of the building and on the waterfront. Coming down the river in the distance, a man dressed in a black suit, stands in a little white canoe. As the boat cuts through the waters, he sings a melancholic song. Ever so slowly the boat inches towards us. Then perfectly synchronised, the music ends, the boat speeds past us and continues beyond. Soon it’s a dot out on the horizon of the great Mandovi.
“There’s no knowing what’s beyond the event horizon inside a black hole,” our professor informs us adding, “The event horizon is the point of no return.”
To know what’s beyond we must be prepared to give up our existing form. Our existing identity. Forever. Does that sound remarkably like death? Is death just an event horizon? And is there a different kind of life beyond? For us, for the stars, for the universe?
We board a bus with black paper tacked to the windows. We are inside a black hole and on our way back to the beginning.
I have more questions than answers. I guess that’s what being homo sapiens is all about.