I couldn't fall asleep last night, an experience which far too many of us have had the privilege to enjoy. As I lay in the dark, eyes open, glaring angrily at the world, I started reciting (silently, for those who worry about me talking to myself--I mean, I do, but I wasn't last night) a piece by Blaise Pascal. It's one of my all time favourite pieces of writing ever, in the history of words.
I got about this far...
"Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun, and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament..."
...when I sat up in bed (not really, I'm too lazy for that, it was more of a figurative sitting up in bed) and said to myself, "Look at me: a 20-something year old woman in the 21st Century reciting the words of a 17th century mathematician/physicist/writer while trying to fall asleep. I hope someday I write something memorable enough that a 25th century 20-something year old woman bothered to memorize it and is reciting it to help her fall asleep."
And I do. I do hope that. At least, if the world still exists and we haven't destroyed ourselves or been obliterated by technologically-advanced aliens (Borg!) or are all living in solitary caves deep underground.
At least we know that Pascal doesn't have to worry about the apocalypse. He was born in 1623 and died in 1662 of stomach cancer. A French mathematician, inventor, and physicist, he's probably best known for his theory of probability and the unit of pressure that is named after him. You may also have heard of Pascal's triangle or the Pascaline, one of the first calculators.
So for those of you that would like more insight on what this 17th century "piece" is that so inspired a 20-something year old woman in the 21st century, I have typed it up for you. This is the version found in the book "The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking" (only $4 used!) and I highly recommend picking up a copy and perusing it, at very least on nights you can't sleep, to get a broad and inspiring view of existence.
"Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun, and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.
"Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is man in the Infinite?
"But to show him a prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humors in the blood, drops in the humors, vapors in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature's immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.
"For in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.
"What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvelous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so...
"...When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?...
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."
More on space and infinity: Sleeping Beauty Awakes Only 162 Million Miles From Her Prince