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Senior Column | Villegas ’22: Expanding our universe

When I was young I remember looking up at the night sky and the stars that lay over it like white specks on a dark canvas while soft tones of mariachi danced in the background. One of these nights, I asked in gentle Spanish, “Papá, Mamá, qué son esas luces en el cielo? Si agarro una escalera gigante podré un día tocarlas?” which translates to “Mother, Father, what are those lights in the sky? If I grab a giant ladder would I be able to touch them one day?” It was a magical solution for a stellar dream. Like many of you, I arrived at Brown nervous, excited and a tad homesick. As freshmen we moved in constellations that would change and shift. We conversed in the dining hall about classes, roommates and the latest social events. How small our world was back then, oblivious to the obstacles and complexity that lay ahead of us. 

During my time here at Brown, I learned of a 16th-century Italian philosopher named Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a Dominican monk who hungered to learn all about the universe, which in his time was simply thought of as “God’s creation.” He dared to read the books forbidden by the Catholic Church, the reigning source of power during his era. One book, written by an ancient Roman, Lucretius, fundamentally changed Bruno's concept of the cosmos. Within the text, Lucretius offered a simple thought experiment in which a man stands at the edge of the universe and throws a javelin outward. Two solutions are possible, he argued: either the javelin continues on forever or the javelin hits a new boundary. If the latter is the case, then the rest of the universe must lie beyond it. The man could then go onto the new boundary and throw another javelin from there and so on, and so on. In either scenario, Lucretius concluded that the universe was endless, and hence, Bruno’s god was infinite. 

With this newfound way of thinking, he dared to go further than Copernicus and argued that the universe had no up, no down, no edge, no center. More profoundly, he insisted that the sun was one of many stars, each with its own unique subset of planets and moons. Bruno’s innumerable worlds theory expanded the size and complexity of the universe tenfold. Of course we know now that Bruno's vision was indeed correct — what a magical solution for such a stellar dream. 

As a graduate of the class of 2022, it is imperative to think about how much your field of knowledge, your ability to create change and the size of your universe has changed since arriving on College Hill. As we don our gowns, crown our heads with caps and move beyond the Van Wickle Gates, we must dare to further expand our universe. 

Dare to admire the nights teeming with stars 

And paint the unknown landscapes of Mars

Dare to imagine yourself floating amongst the waves of light

And picture yourself gliding to places light-years in height

 

Dare to dream of new stories, glistening horizons 

And imagine the intricate sounds within the silence

 

Dare to close your eyes, and decipher reality 

And then open them up to share with all of humanity 

Dare to see the mountain in every piece of stone

And feel the strength in every one of your bones

 

Dare to change the direction of the mighty stream

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And create magical solutions for stellar dreams

As I think back to my ladder to the stars, I chuckle at the absurdity of it. Perhaps I, too, was already trying to increase the size of my universe. 

So far we have spoken in poetry and envisioned with prose. But what is the legitimate cost of expansion? To answer this, let us look back at Bruno’s story. For preaching his gospel of infinity, Bruno was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in Italy, expelled by Calvinists in Switzerland and banished by the Lutherans in Germany. Eventually, he was invited to give a series of lectures at Oxford, which were met with high criticism. These critiques included being called a heretic, an infidel and a lunatic. Bruno’s will, however, would not bend to authority and for that he suffered a similar fate as other “heretics” of his time. 

The truth is that expanding the collective field of view will often be met by resistance. Even if it is for the better, changing the flow of the mighty stream is ultimately a disruption of the status quo. It is the fear of change that often causes the nights to flame with fire. 

 

And yet, despite this fact, it is clear that our class is no stranger to change or the resistance to change. Every graduate has persevered through a pandemic, through the economic hardships that accompanied it and through shifting political paradigms. The students at Brown are patrons of change. We have rushed to the statehouse to protest racism and injustice, we have dedicated time to classrooms across the city of Providence, we have engaged with undocumented workers, community organizations and non-profits. We have increased the pressure to improve diversity and inclusion within academic departments at Brown, and insisted on improving women's rights and workers rights here on campus. What’s truly inspiring is that you have already been fighting to expand the boundaries of this campus’ universe. Our time as undergraduates was only our dawn; now, as we move into the broader world, we set ourselves to bringing the sunrise. 

Our ability to sculpt the future depends on how expansive we desire our universe to be. It depends on how broadly we want our eyes to gaze upon the horizon. Therefore, let us not limit our ideas, our creativity, our compassion or our dedication. If we promise to do this then we can truly create magical solutions for stellar dreams. Where the magic may seep into the free thoughts of others and the dreams may grow from the stellar to the interstellar scale. Congratulations to the class of 2022 — I hope we will all continue to expand our universe and seek our ladders to the stars. 



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