How Not To Be A Cosmologist
for Ann Burgess


Backing into the lane at midday on the way to the Fisher Library, turning off the suddenly-too-loud radio the last thing I hear is that we are about to talk to a famous cosmologist.
A cosmologist? how can that be? I know that an astronomer is technically a namer of stars and that an astrologist tries to make sense of them the way a soap opera makes sense of history or the mess one has made of one's marriage but the notion of an expert in the logic of the Cosmos seems suddenly strange to me as if someone could really be a specialist in Everything or, if they could, would be much different from a poet, say, or the tumbling universe inside one of the trucks of the Leichhardt Municipal Council's Waste Collection service.
An astronomer friend of mine tells me that she studies parts but a cosmologist studies the whole; I don't mean to doubt her but how can there be a whole that isn't inside another one? and how can a study of wholes be anything other than a study of parts? if a whole is everything, then how can everything be all there is?
It seems, at the very least, that studying the Cosmos would have some serious problems of scale, like trying to reconstruct the Second World War from a matchbox found in Alaska or the entire Serengeti Game Park from inside a parasite inside a wart in an elephant's ear.
In my short life I must have heard twenty-five different theories of the cosmos and although you might think twenty-five different cosmologists couldn't be wrong all twenty-five of them were sure the other twenty-four were which isn't completely to dismiss the possibility that one of them might one day come up with something although I myself would make no claims, nor think sitting out in the courtyard late on New Year's Eve 2001 looking up at the sky and imagining that the vast sheet of cloud slipping by under the
almost-full moon was like a ghostly Soviet army marching past Josef Stalin on May Day 1937 would rate very highly as an example of the discipline.
The theory I like is the one that says that everything that is is just ancient light arriving after millions of years— even me, even the cosmologist, even this poem— and that the world is no more than another screen erected by Atlas Copco in an endless cinema called, let's say, The Majestic or The Infinite Starlight Drive-In
David Brooks reproduced with permission