To me, a random universe is the most rational of all, because it removes the human element, which is always irrational. I don’t aim to be any kind of cause-and-effect predictor of future events: even if a given experiment produces the same results 99 times, the same result is only a statistical probability the hundredth time, not a certainty. Anyone who claims anything different is just not being scientific.

So many people knock themselves out trying to make sense of the unsensible, like is light a wave or particle phenomenon, why can’t we go faster than the speed of light, and (this is the big one for most people) just how did it all begin, when the very existence of anything at all violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics? They talk meaningfully about disembodied entities they call “nature”, or “history”, or even “logic”, when they’d be a damned sight more honest if they admitted these are just new-fangled names for God, who they know doesn’t exist, any more than these newer, more seemingly scientific shibboleths. Once you start talking about a scientifically ordered universe, with laws of causality that always work, you’re out of science and into theology.

But when I say that it was all a cosmic accident, that we may be the only ball of dirt revolving round an insignificant thermo-nuclear reaction on the edge of an equally insignificant galaxy where the anomalous anti-entropic virus we call life defied their precious laws for a million or so revolutions about the sun, even respected professors tend to throw up their hands in horror and turn back to their so-called laws which are only about probabilities, truth be told. Actually, they’re just security blankets, protecting them from the realities of the hard vacuum between the stars (which is far from being a vacuum, I know, but most of the time our calculations work better if we assume that it is, which rather proves my point, doesn’t it?).

They no longer chatter about life after death, unless they’re oriental weirdos like my second colleague, who manages to believe several contradictory things at the same time, but the idea of the heat death of the universe, including you and me and especially them, offends their sense of fair play. As if there was anything fair about the universe, which is red in tooth and claw even if the anthropologists tell us that isn’t an accurate description of the way our aboriginal ancestors used to cling together for mutual support to survive in a hostile environment. Even if we weren’t as barbaric as they used to be painted when progress was regarded as an axiomatic fact of life, and the present age of dog-eat-dog is an aberration in human history rather than a reversion to type, the skull beneath the skin still wins in the end, and the worms eat us all for dinner.

All this is still conjectural, however. I cling on to facts, and if some of them seem anomalous in relation to others we know, then we just have to plot them on the graph, knowing that the only pattern is one we impose upon them, a mean of all the probabilities, denoting no over-all grand design, since a design presupposes a designer, a wish for order that is father to the thought.

So as we set out to investigate this latest anomaly, I was neither as disturbed as my first colleague nor as elated as my second, since I knew my role was to annotate rather than evaluate, leaving the business of explanations for those who feel a need for them. The failure of our instruments to respond in the expected way to phenomena which were clearly unprecedented was a datum to be recorded, nothing more, since I had invested no particular emotional underpinning on the functioning of such artefacts. Nevertheless, it was impossible not to feel a certain lifting of the spirits as we left the university, since we were observing what I might have been tempted to think of as a special display of the universe’s most spectacular effects, had I been prey to such anthropomorphism. But I felt neither the bewilderment of Caspar nor the triumphalism of Balthazar: it was more reminiscent of a gambler’s thrill at the tables, as the ball rattles round the wheel, favouring red or black, odd or even, winner or loser, with absolute impartiality.

As we left the laboratory where Caspar had called his emergency inter-disciplinary conference, I caught up the tattered looseleaf notebook which has been the repository of all my data ever since I received my doctorate. It had once been bright and new, its wine-dark Morocco binding pristine and my name embossed in letters of what I was assured was 18-carat gold leaf. Now the lettering was barely legible, the logo of the electronics company who distributed it at some long-forgotten conference obliterated by time, and the leather worn into a friendly shape that fitted neatly into my hand.

It bulged with sheets of obsolete data, which one day I promised myself I would file into the university’s memory banks, but which always needs must coexist with new observations, driving such mundane housekeeping further down my schedule of priorities so that somehow it is never done. Navigating around it was almost as confusing as attempting to make sense of the objective world of which it is ostensibly a record, though I knew enough about my subjective limitations to realise that I put in as much as I took out of it. The observer is never neutral.

The sky was lit up with an aurora so magnificent that I caught my breath, despite myself. Caspar was driving like a mad thing, swerving round corners like a fire engine on the way to a conflagration, but the sight of the sky filled me somehow with a sort of inner peace, a serenity which drove all anxieties out of my head. I found myself murmuring a childhood hymn about all things bright and beautiful: I can’t have thought of those words for – how long? Thirty years? No, longer.

Ours is a dirty city, like every great metropolis, but the light in the sky transcended the discarded burger packs and crushed Coke cans in the gutters, making the whole scene magical, the way a full moon can sometimes create a fairyland out of a rubbish tip, where every item of garbage is tipped with silver, and shadowed in jet.

As we drove, above the clatter of the diesel engine I became aware of a sort of music, first sensed as a deep thrumming in my chest, and then joined by what sounded like voices, singing wordlessly but with great exaltation. It reminded me of that great coda to the Choral Symphony, celebrating the sheer joy of being human, though musically it was poles apart. It could have been electronic, or ethnic, or both.

I remember waking each day when I’d been working in the Middle East, hearing the early morning call to prayer, distorted by the tinny amplification, in a language I could not understand: the music had that sort of universal communication, as if what was being said was in a tongue that spoke to all.

I wound down the window and poked the microphone of my audio recorder out to record the music: somehow I was not surprised, later, to discover there was nothing on the tape, though the machine appeared to be working perfectly.

All along the roadside people had stopped their cars and were standing on the pavements and looking up at the light in the sky. We seemed to be the only vehicle moving, and when Caspar jumped the red at the main road intersection there was no real danger of accident.

Caspar was obviously heading for the main source of the light, which appeared to be focussed upon a small temporary structure, a sort of shed behind a large local pub: the department sometimes holds its celebrations of birthdays, departures and academic honours in an upstairs room, which has a more homely atmosphere than the university refectory. Bright as the light from the sky was, it appeared dim in comparison with the emission through the single window of the shed. I once gazed, through protective glass, at a controlled thermonuclear reaction, but I feel certain that glimpse at a laboratory re-Creation of a star’s inner furnace would have also seemed dim compared with the light inside the shed. Surprisingly, though, the light did not dazzle me, and I left the polarised glasses I had brought on the seat of the four-wheel drive.

The scene inside the shed was eloquent testimony to the way happy accidents can occur in human affairs as well as at a cosmic level, for the phenomena we had come to observe had also brought as odd a cross-section of people as you could meet in any disaster movie. There was a local vicar, a military type complete with arsenal of weapons, a young woman in the sort of quasi-military gear affected by the young in these not-so-peaceful times, some sort of security guard, the wife of the licensee, and three down-and-outs who gather to drink their cheap wine and cadge pennies from the populace on the steps of the local church, a nurse from the local hospital who seemed to have come direct from a strike picket, judging by the placard in her hand. With them, but slightly to the fore, was the man I assumed to be the woman’s husband: he had the sort of sentimental grin you see only on the faces of fathers of new-born babies. He was a rough, honest-looking chap, could have been a builder or similar tradesman.

All these people were gathered around a young woman with a baby, like a contemporary reworking of some medieval religious ikon. She had the sort of exhausted serenity I remember in my own wife after the birth of our son, and I found myself wishing we’d brought some grapes or similar offering. Evidently, others had felt the same, since around the young woman’s feet were a collection of little gifts, some of them rather the worse for wear.

All the people were on their knees, which didn’t strike me as strangely as it now does: indeed, the strangest thing about that scene was that it all seemed totally right, even when Caspar and Balthazer joined the multitude at prayer.

As I’ve said, within the hearts of most rationalists beats the desire to find God, though on their own terms, so I didn’t find our senior colleague’s reverence so surprising. However, Balthazar’s very firm religious beliefs should have precluded his joining the throng.

Indeed, though he fell to his knees, he quickly scrambled to his feet again and rushed out of the shed, for all the world as if pursued by the proverbial bat out of hell, which for all I know he was.

I stood apart for a moment, evaluating the data as was my role in life. I suppose you could call me a sort of agnostic, not in the philosophical sense that I find theism unproven, but rather that since I shun all systems as an irrational human desire to see a pattern in data that are actually random, then both theism and atheism seem equally untenable, revealing more of the believer’s motives than of any kind of reality as I observe it.

Does it surprise you, then, that I, too, got down upon my knees, placing my precious notebook among the gifts at the young woman’s feet?


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