“The universe is coming apart at the seams,” astronomy and astrophysics professor Robin Ciardullo says to the 20 people watching his PowerPoint presentation in a small classroom on Penn State’s campus. It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday and we’re all listening to his lecture on how, after decades of research and billions of dollars in space exploration, astronomers have come to the conclusion that the universe actually doesn’t make as much sense as they’d hoped. You can tell by the way he’s flailing his arms and throwing bewildered looks around the room that this conclusion, at least for Ciardullo, is deeply unsettling.
It fills me with a relieved sense of calm.
I’m sitting in the front row of this insightful little show, just one of many offered during Astro Fest, a four-night astronomy event that coincides with Central Pennsylvania’s Festival of the Arts. Given that the universe itself is a work of art, local astronomers take the opportunity each year to showcase its brilliance, commiserate about its frustrating unpredictability and – through the magic of 3D movies and million-dollar telescopes – remind us of our relative insignificance.
“I just feel … insignificant,” I say to Chris almost exactly one year earlier, the day after the first flashback jolts my body with nausea in the present over a putrid memory just beginning to bubble up from the distant past.
We are on vacation at a beach in Delaware and I am staring at the vastness of the ocean and my sons building trenches in the sand. But all I can see are the shadows deep inside my psyche, disjointed waves of anxiety and fear and a sense of resigned worthlessness that until now have had no shore on which to crash.
Ciardullo presses a button and a new slide appears, explaining how gravity should be slowing the expansion of the universe, but instead the opposite is happening. For some reason, planets and stars and asteroids are flying apart at a faster and faster rate. Astronomers theorize that this is due to a mysterious dark matter, about which very little is known.
“Everything we see and know about is only about 4 percent of the universe,” Ciardullo says. I empathize with the strained effort it has taken to shift his view not just on the composition of the universe, but on the previously held belief that he understood it.
“It is hard to have the memories now,” I write to myself a couple weeks after the trip to the beach. “My brain has done such a good job of hiding them. And I always wanted to understand myself better but now I feel like I don’t know who I’ve been, like I am someone different than I thought I was all this time….”
Ciardullo is using numbers and ratios and scientifically proven data to preface and explain the existence of dark matter, something he says nobody can see. I sink lower in my faux leather armchair and stare at the percentages he has put up on the screen:
Constituents of the Universe:
Stars, Planets, Asteroids, etc. – 1.5% Mass
Gas, inside and outside of galaxies – 13.4% Mass
Dark Matter – 85% Mass
“Searches have proved that dark matter does not emit light, does not absorb light, and does not reflect light,” Ciardullo says. “It is totally invisible, aside from the fact that it has gravity.”
The journal is a lined writing pad, bound at the top with a spiral ring and cluttered inside with confessions, confusion and the crushing weight of a child’s pain. “The images are so far away, decades away, but chokingly vivid. I can hear him shushing me, forceful, I can feel how little he really saw me or cared about me. That little girl didn’t feel like a person in that moment, in that dark spare bedroom. She felt less than a living, breathing thing, lying there still and quiet, like a stuffed animal rather than an innocent child. That feeling of insignificance is so strong it weighs me down, even all these years later, and in the light of day.”
Scientists like Ciardullo are working hard to understand dark matter, this nonluminous material that makes up so much of who we are as a universe. The planets, the moons, the gaseous balls of light that we wish upon are really just the icing on a cake made of unknown ingredients, a vast shapeless sea that is at once holding things together and, it turns out, pushing them apart.
Dark matter is all around us, wrapped around our constellations and tucked into the folds of our memories. Unseen forces and hidden hurts and grave errors of judgment, black spaces we can’t see or refuse to see but can feel, taking up more room than they should, mystifying scientists and middle-aged women who spent their lives believing one truth and then painstakingly unraveling another.