Across the universe

By Jostein Gaarder
Friday 01 November 2013

The 40-year anniversary of The Beatles’ recording of Across the universe, with the resounding refrain "Nothing's gonna change my world," was celebrated in the winter of 2008. The recording was made at Abbey Road on February 4th, 1968 towards the end of the brief period during which the band was receiving the spiritual nourishment of Indian philosophy and meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This period lasted from the autumn of 1967 to the spring of 1968, at which time the winds of change were stirring. I am thinking specifically of the student uprisings and everything that took place in the spring and summer of 1968. Across the universe was therefore put on ice until the band was persuaded to donate the song and the recording to a charity LP in support of the World Wildlife Fund. It was only after a number of remixes and arrangements had been done that the song was included on the album Let it be in 1970.

Five years ago, in preparation for February 4th, the entire world was encouraged to play Across the universe on the streets and on town squares, at schools and at home, at exactly the same moment all around the world, on this day which would be the earth’s very first Across the universe day. The American aerospace organization NASA took part in the commemoration and on the same day NASA broadcast the 40-year old Beatles song literally “across the universe,” in the direction of Stella Polaris or the North Star, 431 light years from our own solar system. A fascinating part of this story is the fact that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi by astounding coincidence passed away on the same night that NASA broadcast into outer space the very song that he had played a part in inspiring.  

Nothing's gonna change my world … But we have cause to ask the question: What will the world look like when the radio waves from NASA reach their destination 431 years after the historic radio signals were sent out into space? It will be the year 2439. And as a means of throwing such blocks of time into relief, let us look 431 years back in time. We find ourselves then in the year 1577. Christian IV, the founder of this city, was born this year, as was the painter Ruben. El Greco settled in Spain and Elizabeth I is enjoying the pinnacle of her reign. William Shakespeare is 13 years old and in 23 years Giordano Bruno will be burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori for claiming that the universe contains infinite inhabitable worlds.

But here we shall first and foremost think about the future. What will the situation on this planet be when the mantra "Nothing's gonna change my world" has reached its remote destination out there? 431 light years is in fact right around the limit of how far out into space we are able to send signals in any sense, or, if you will, from how far away we can receive such signals. Beyond a radius of approximately 400 light years, we have no possibility for communication with any potential civilizations in outer space, although when we speak of a radius of 400 light years, we are in reality speaking about only a backwater of the universe. Our own galaxy has a diameter of approximately 80,000 light years and we must travel a couple of million light years out into intergalactic space in order to reach our closest neighboring galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy. But the human race can never achieve contact at such a distance with an SOS or the strains of "Nothing's gonna change my world."

In the area in the immediate vicinity of the North Star, John Lennon’s text will be received in the year 2439, but another 431 years must pass before any potential response can come back to us. That means the year 2870. What will it look like here on earth at that time? How many of us are certain beyond any doubt that there will still be a civilization on this planet prepared to receive these radio signals that have been sent back to us from "across the universe"?

A condition for contact with any other civilizations in outer space is that we succeed in maintaining contact with our own descendants. We must then also manage to live in attentive, close contact with the fundamental life conditions of our own planet.

What is time? The individual’s horizon comes first, and then the horizon of the family, the present culture and the culture based on the tradition of the written language. Then there is, in addition, what we call geological time. We stem from some tetrapods creeping out of the sea a little over 350 million years ago. Ultimately, we relate to a cosmic time axis. We live in a universe approximately 13.7 billion years old. 

However, these time divisions are really not so far from one another as they may seem at first sight. We have reasons to feel at home in the universe. The planet on which we are living is approximately 1/3 the age of the universe, and the animal order to which we belong, the vertebrates, has existed for all of ten percent of the lifetime of the Earth and this solar system. This universe is no more infinite than that. Or to put it the opposite way: so substantially deep are our roots and our affinity with the universal soil.

It took some billions of years to create us. Yes, it really does take some billions of years to create a human being! But will we survive the third millennium?

Man may be the only living creature in the entire universe who has a universal consciousness; I mean a sense of this entire, huge and enigmatic universe we are all a part of. So conserving the living environment of this planet isn't just a global responsibility. It is a cosmic responsibility.