It all started at the end. However, we do not know, and perhaps we never will, when exactly the end began, whether it was day or night...
It all started at the end but we do not know, and perhaps we never will, whether the blinding light and the thunder which followed tore through the darkness and broke the silence of the night, or whether they wounded a magnificent sunny spring morning or broke the monotony of a rainy, grey autumn afternoon.
We do not know whether it was day or night, but we do know that if there were woods or forests all around, they had to have been woods and forests of almost complete silence. Even stopping to listen carefully, we would not have heard the birds singing. We could have stood still for a long time, waiting for a faint chirp, a whistle, a trill, but we would only have encountered the soft rustle of leaves of large, motionless trees among which the buzz of insects, the chirping of the strange ancestors of the cricket and the cicada, of the ancient species of now extinct giant grasshoppers, was spreading. Perhaps with a little luck, here and there, we would have heard the echo of the distant roaring of some giant lizard.
On the dawning of that final day, sixty-four million years ago (give or take a year) the sun was not greeted by birdsong, because there were no birds. The forest was not punctuated by the cries of monkeys chasing each other through the branches, because there were no monkeys either. Nothing like that which surrounds us today could be found and there was no one there to observe and describe that world which differed so greatly from ours, where small and large dinosaurs were about to witness the end of the world. The end of their world which was the beginning of ours.
Almost always, in the Universe, the end of one story is the beginning of another. It carries with itself an inner beauty, which is the succession of small, imperceptibly slow steps and the overlap of these little things is what makes up the grandiosity of Nature, or in rare and extreme cases - such as when a star dies - explodes in an apocalypse which creates a shock reaching the furthermost corners of the sky.
As on our little blue planet, with the age-old, reliable changing of the seasons, there is the possibility of being wiped out by a great volcanic eruption or an asteroid striking the Earth at a speed of tens of kilometres per second, causing an impact of catastrophic proportions. And where the grey fragments of sky fall, the air becomes incandescent. Lakes, rivers and seas evaporate instantly. Animals and plants are incinerated and the mountains and the soil are shaken by an explosion so great that dust and gases are dispersed into the atmosphere changing the climate and disrupting ecosystems for thousands of years, to wipe out an unimaginable number of living beings and to permanently erase an entire era.
In the face of all this, the words of Lucretius in On the Nature of Things come to mind, where he reflects: “Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's tribulation: not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive from what ills you are free yourself is pleasant”.
No one, then, could assist while at the same time being terrified yet fascinated by the magnificence of the end of the world, just as no one, right up to a few years ago, could have even imagined the colours and the forms alone, of the infinite sidereal objects scattered throughout the dark sky. No one, at least up to the point where science made us bystanders to time and space, was able to assist in the beginning and the end of exotic worlds.
Today, however, thanks that which we have come to understand about what surrounds us, we can allow ourselves be captivated by the beauty of lost events and we can do so from a safe place. We can give them an outline and a form, conscious of having shed light on the darkness of ignorance and lack of knowledge which, until not long ago, enveloped the world concealing what happened millions of years ago and jealously guarded what will happen in the future.
Today we read the rocky sequence as pages of a book written by time. We see the evolution of organisms as a thing of chance or as something of a God who guides destiny. We observe in the universe, the light of stars and galaxies which has travelled what, for us, would be an infinite amount of time. We are shown this light which we can see today when we look at the sky, but we are looking at something which no longer exists.
We desperately search for something in the folds of the heavens, and we are still surprised when, like Pirandello’s Mattia Pascal, through a tear in the paper sky we realise that reality is not the only thing in front of us. There is also that which lies beyond, where we find the chasm of time and the depth of space which we have conquered with knowledge, which arouses emotions and sensations never before felt. Besides the rip in the paper sky, in that time which never began and which will never end and in that space without a top or a bottom, between a thousand lights and a thousand colours, we can witness the sequence of birth and death, of existence and non existence, of the necessary origin and disappearance, the latter of which makes room for that which comes next.
Even our world which has already finished so many times and which will not avoid the cycle of many more endings, and which possesses the unique beauty of the universe, is like a bubble expanding into nothing and is probably just one of many possible universes among those which now exist or those which existed in the past.
And it is the Universe itself, this universe of ours, our greatest work of art. That which we have somehow shaped and which, at least from this corner of the Milky Way, in our galaxy, we are perhaps the first to observe and to love, in ecstasy in front of it, as if maybe it were Prince Myshkin affirming that only beauty can save the world.
Barringer Crater. Photo: USGS/D. Roddy, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.