It was about 4.5 billion years ago. On a hot, and one can say sunny, day – and all days were hot back then – the young planet Gaia almost met its fate. Another planet, we now call it Theia, crashed into Gaia. Through the impact, enormous amounts of rock and gas exploded into space. There, we now believe, they coalesced into a satellite. Planet Earth and its Moon were born. If we would have been around to watch back then, all this cataclysmic events when Gaia became Earth would for us have occurred in utter and total silence. There was no atmosphere that could have transported any sound…
On Earth, however, the explosion had created large amounts of rock vapor that with time condensed into carbon dioxide mixed with hydrogen and water. The first atmosphere had appeared and that, possibly, was the moment sound came to Earth.
Our world, the later world of wind and water, plants and animals, always has been a world of sound and silence seems a remnant of an older age. And so we have a deeply conflicted relationship with silence. We know that too much sound isn’t good for our health – but prolonged total silence seems to drive us mad. It is as if silence is something rather to be admired from afar. And still, without silence there would be no language and no music. And all the big religions talk about and exercise inner silence.
Through machines and human activity we have on many places on Earth created a constant vapor of white noise, a mixture of all frequencies that is present in the backgound all the time and against which the ear strains to single out sounds. On a wind-still day deep in the forest, however, the song of a bird is painted on a canvas of silence and stands out, is easy on the ear. It thus seems to me that what we seek is rather a balance than an absolute.
But what then is silence? Is it merely the yin to the yang of sound? We use silence in many ways as a signal. In the question unanswered, in the “appalling silence of the good people” we give silence a sound of its own. And in fact I think, just like the number zero isn’t just he absence of other numbers, silence isn’t just the absence of sound. Silence is a sound of its own.
Three planets out from the class G2V star we call the Sun, in a remote corner of a galaxy we live in a small bubble of sound. And when we in our darkest hours and in moments of despair stand at the edge of the world and shout: why? Why me? Why anything? Why joy and suffering? Why do we have to go through all of this? And when we so cry out on the top of our lungs, the answer of the universe is: silence.
Is this then the “appalling silence of the universe”? Is it the denial of our pain, the annihilation of our joy? I do not think it is. I do think silence is a valid answer. And like the little bird in the woods paints its song, we paint and brush and etch our lives, our love and fear, our joy and pain, our hopes and our deepest despair on the canvas of the silence of the universe. That’s why we are here.
You don’t believe me? I can show you. On the distant shore, deep in the water and up in the clouds you’ll find the silence that is also the sound of the universe. Just start painting on it.