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The Universe is Made of Stories, Not of Atoms

By Mike Bell


I always remember when people asked [Thomas Berry] how they should go about creating a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and Earth, he would say, “Tell them the story.” Since then I’ve always been extremely interested in the concept of story, especially in its cosmological dimensions.

Recently I came across from an article by Rebecca Mead, “The Pictures Particle Follies,” in The New Yorker of January 28, 2013. She was interviewing the film editor and sound designer Walter Murch about “Particle Fever,” a documentary concerning the Large Hadron Collider (L.H.C.) near Geneva, Switzerland, that enabled physicists to discover the Higgs boson particle.

I think Tom would have been delighted with it.

Here’s the excerpt from Rebecca Mead’s article:

Its subatomic product, the Higgs boson, has been called “The God Particle” by one prominent physicist, Leon Lederman. When [Murch] was asked whether his sense of reverence had been increased or diminished by contemplating the L.H.C., Murch paused, “I think of a Muriel Rukeyeser quote, where she says the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” he said. ”The tension is between finding ever more detail about atomic structure, and the story.”

It could be the equivalent of somebody looking at an old film, and realizing that the film came from a projector, and discovering that there is an image in the projector, and that it’s made of molecules of grains of film—and then trying to find the mystery of the story by looking at ever more detailed molecules of film, thinking, “If I finally get to the heart of that, will it tell me where my story comes from? While we know these are two separate universes.”

He took another bite of his sandwich before heading back to the editing room. “It may be that our story, whatever that is—existence—depends on the Higgs boson and atoms but it depends on it the way the film depends on the molecular structure of the celluloid.” He went on, “That just happens to be the medium though which it is manifest, but the story predates the film and, in fact, actually created the film itself.”