OOOH LA LA LA, C'EST FANTASTIQUE
Paula Marckx gets starstruck with Kris Verburgh
I first noticed Kris Verburgh when he was autographing his book at the recent book fair in Antwerp. I had never heard of him but the long queue of people waiting to meet him apparently not only knew who he was but also thought he was worth standing in line for. He looked to be in his early twenties and I learned that he had written a book about, of all things, 'the universe inside our heads'. Now I'm quite a bit older than him and I believe I have acquired a lot of experience over the years, but I still have no clue how my senses work.
I did some research on this Kris and found his explanation on how far it is to travel to the nearest star and how many thousands of years it will take a person to get there. It looked like I had come across a young genius; he wrote his first book, Schitterend! ('Splendid!'), about the actual universe, when he was seventeen. I got hold of his new book titled Fantastisch! ('Fantastic!'), and read chapter headings like: In and outside the universe, Depression, Fear and firing nervous cells, Why we are as we are, and more of that kind of stuff that one is not used to hearing from a teenager. So I decided to visit him in his village not far from Antwerp, just outside of Boom. At least that's what I meant to do, but the way to his home was complicated and I became hopelessly lost in some industrial area, so that, although Kris and I were continuously in contact via our mobiles, he wasn't able to put me on the right track. If I had asked him the way to the moon, it would have been far easier to find than the way to his home. Out of pure despair I returned home without seeing him. But determined as we both are, we finally got together. And it was worth it. The first question to ask was, of course, where he got all that wisdom from? It all started with curiosity, the curiosity of a small child who already in preschool was fascinated with skeletons, minerals and dinosaurs, and who delved holes in his backyard hoping to find them. Although his mother didn't always appreciate her little boy's spirit of enterprise, she never turned him down when he came to her with questions about what he discovered in the world around him. Nor did she dismiss his enthusiasm as the product of an overheated youthful imagination, even though he seemed to be especially interested in the human body, his own and other people's. At first he had to make do with looking at pictures, but he soon taught himself to read so he could understand the explanations that went with them. What was driving him was the beauty of everything he saw and discovered. As soon as he could properly read, he started devouring dozens and dozens of science books. By the time he turned seventeen, he was ready to write a book of his own that was so well received that before long he was asked to give lectures in our own country and abroad. All of a sudden, he had become the youngest scientific writer ever.
Kris has remained a very unassuming boy, but he talks about the evolution of the stars as if it were a routine, everyday conversation. He explains that four billion years ago, a beautiful planet was turning around the sun. It was a brown-grey sphere. There was no green color. For that, life was needed, which didn't come until a hundred million years later. And just like the planet on which it started, that life was built from elements that originated in the middle of stars that had exploded millions and millions of years earlier. The carbon that makes up our bodies, the calcium in our teeth, the phosphorus in our DNA, the gold of our jewels, the silicon and iron of which our earth is built, and the oxygen we inhale, everything originates from the stars. To put it less romantically, Kris says, we are al nuclear waste from the stars.
This young boy in front of me talks about 4,000,000,000 years of evolution with probably as many years to go. We are living among all those galaxies that are a billion and more light years away from us. As Einstein has said, nothing travels as fast as light, which means that no one ever will be able to catch up with it. When you hear Kris talking, it all seems so natural. You can feel he knows what he is talking about. It isn't even amazing. The way he explains it makes you feel that you had known this for your entire life instead of just one hour. That it was common knowledge that, to reach the nearest star, we would be on our way for 75,000 years, providing we travel at 60,000 km per hour. Kris with his 21 years is still a student and is aiming to become a doctor specializing in brains; what else? He is fascinated with how they work, why we dream, where our language, our humor comes from, and so many other things that it is impossible to enumerate them all. He contradicts Descartes who stated that body and brain are separated. According to Kris and his observations, body and brain are linked to each other. It is not surprising that he is a brilliant student who is striving for the highest grades and getting them. He is not taking anything for granted and still has an entire life to be surprised and to surprise us. When I said goodbye to him I felt a little dizzy. It was still daylight. At night, I looked up to the sky and tried to see the stars in a new light, in a manner of speaking. I am not sure I saw them, but in my mind they were there, so far away and yet so close. I remembered what Kris had said that same day and he was right. It is a miracle. C'est Fantastique.
Gazette of Detroit, March 20, 2008
By Paula Marckx