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Unbearable darkness

If there’s anything positive about the recent earthquake, it is how its combined effect of great shock and awe has induced in us a strong scientific curiosity. Suddenly, we are jolted into the realization of how little we know about the world we live in. Everything seems shrouded in mystery and we grope for some sense of predictability.

Every time the ground shakes, we are haunted by the primordial fear of an unknown monster that could have lurked beneath the surface of the earth and we are brought to our knees in desperation for divine mercy.

Science provides a little solace in this guesswork, in the reassuring graphs and tables presented on prime time news by local volcanologists who try their best to explain the complexity of earthquakes.

Still, they themselves are left in the dark as modern earth science is still largely scratching the surface of the planet. There is so much that is left unexplored in the bottom and, like the proverbial Unconscious of Sigmund Freud, we know that our own safety and sanity is anchored on this.

But while we focus on what’s down there, others are more keen on the great unknown that lies beyond this planet. Through a mutual artist-friend in Baguio, who informed me about her lecture in our university this week, I met Dr. Reina Reyes, a 28-year-old astrophysicist who is doing postdoctoral studies in the University of Chicago.

Reina was recently cited as the “young Filipina astrophysicist who proved Einstein right” through her work on distant galaxies observed through “gravitational lensing” or how a mass of energy like the sun tends to bend light coming from a star or a galaxy towards an observer. By calculating the extent of this distortions, we are able to verify the exact position of the stars or galaxies.

Through “weak lensing,” or a method of checking configurations of what are faintly visible and bent light sources nearby, we are still able to detect what has been described as “Dark Energy” which, though invisible and unable to collide with visible matter, permeates much of the cosmos. In fact, according to Reina, it makes up 73 percent of the universe and is responsible for accelerating its expansion.

In the absence of such powerful space-bound astronomical telescopes as the Hubble, Einstein could only surmise about gravitational lensing, which was part of his grand theory of relativity. After constantly monitoring and calculating the positions of thousands of galaxies, Reina and her team in Princeton University, where she finished her doctorate, was able to finally match such theory with actual data and thus vindicate Einstein.

And so, what was once invisible could now be “seen.” This is a milestone in astronomy that may yet earn Reina the country’s first Nobel Prize. It’s wishful thinking for those of us who know little about the scientific world. But one thing is certain: Most of those who got the Nobel Prize were awarded for work they did in their 20s, exactly like what Reina is doing right now.

I imagine it must be a slow, meticulous process that involves a lot of math, but to the public mind Reina’s work gives us a tiny idea of how the universe behaves and of what stuff it is made of. Now at least we know that what we see, the visible and tangible matter that we experience through the senses, is only a very small slice in the cosmic pie.

What moves this whole universe remains shrouded in mystery. Philosophers could only allude to this Divine Darkness, as Dionysius the Areopagite (in contrast to the usual metaphor of “Light” of other Christian mystics that follow Plato) would call it, or the Whole as Gilles Deleuze would call this ultimate source of motion and time.

We were lucky to have a short conversation with this young unassuming astrophysicist who wanted to meet local artists during her short stay in USC. Like her own object of study, Reina is somewhat invisible: in T-shirt and jeans, she looks more like a student than a postdoctorate professor.

To pass the time between her lecture at our college theater in the University of San Carlos, she played basketball, her other passion. A celebrity astrophysicist in the court gives new meaning to the term “shooting star.”

Outbrain