By the Numbers
Years back, I read in The Washington Post (“The Shortwave and the Calling,” David Segal, Aug 3, 2004) about something really weird on the radio. In 1992, a guy named Akin Fernandez, who’s always been into collecting off-beat stuff, began recording middle-of-the-night broadcasts of numbers. That’s right. Stations whose signal can’t be found until the moon’s shining, and whose program consists solely of people reciting long lists of numbers. Sometimes they add words.
The voices can be male or female, and even children. The languages include English, Russian, Spanish, Czech and others. “You’re listening,” says Fernandez, “and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal. It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”
Film director Cameron Crowe, who used some of Fernandez’s recordings in Vanilla Sky, talks about the numbers stations as being one of the few mysteries left around us. That’s a really powerful statement. Whether it’s due to the quantum leap of the information age (just about everything about anything seems to be accessible to anyone) or our jaded loss of wonder in an all-too-harsh world, true mysteries take us by surprise.
And we don’t necessarily like that. Recent Nobel Prize winners gathered their honors for work done in measuring background radiation levels that continue to assert the power of the Big Bang Theory of Creation. In the New York Times, however, a telling comment about the density and patterns of the radiation reads, “Cosmologists now believe that these lumps or ripples are a result of quantum fluctuations, tiny jitters in the force fields that filled the universe when it was a fraction of a millionth of a second old.”
A fraction of a millionth of a second old. Wow! That bowls me over. Physicists are among the smartest people on earth. They can take us back almost to the beginning of time, but not quite. And that “not quite” is one of the universe’s great, unrelenting mysteries. Some will say, “Well, it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Big Bang itself.” But physicists shake their heads on that point, because the moment of Creation (and certainly, the nothingness that “existed” before) transcends every law and theory of the physical universe that we know.
It may never be figured out. Not that they won’t keep trying (and they should). But like the numbers radio stations, some mysteries may never be solved. By the way, the most solid theory on the numbers is that these are encoded messages being broadcast to covert operatives across the globe. Problem is, no government will confirm that.
The mystery continues.
Mystery is good, though. Keeps us wondering. And wondering is good. Keeps life in perspective. Because if we think we know everything, we may think we’re in charge. But when we’re in the dark, we may remain a bit more circumspect about how free we are to do what we want with this planet.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches an idea about God that he calls “radical amazement.” In a universe that – whether we have scientific understanding or not (and it truly cuts both ways) – ought to fill us with awe (because of its beauty, its complexity, its vastness), our response ought not be a jaded one but a response of joy, of surprise, of gratefulness (for receiving the opportunity to be part of it). And whether we sense a conscious entity making an intelligent choice to put us here, or we sense something that existed before Creation and is somehow responsible for life flowing out of it (the Big Bang moment) … there has never been anything quite like that, and “radical amazement” is a most appropriate response.
In religious traditions, the name “God” is assigned to the force that is responsible for our existence, and “prayer” is our very natural expression of awe and gratefulness at witnessing it all.
Perhaps one day we’ll find out not only what happened at the precise moment of Creation, but what was going on before Creation — maybe we’ll learn it’s all been a covert government operation! Even so, with knowledge or without, the universe is a radically amazing place. The numbers stations are kind of their own prayer — words and sounds broadcast for us to hear, giving expression to our thoughts of how great, big, beautiful and inspiring is the mystery of it all!