Click on the video above and it will take you on a simulated journey from the high peaks of the Himalayas out into space, past the outer edge of our solar system, beyond our Milky Way galaxy, through the mapped portions of our universe, beyond the quasars, the most distant astronomical objects we know about, and all the way to our cosmic horizon in space in time. Light from this distant horizon has taken 13.7 billion years to reach us here on Earth, and it represents literally the afterglow of the Big Bang itself. Then the video plunges back through space and time, all the way back to the home planet.
It’s a remarkable journey, and I hope you’ll take it. But what is its significance, and why talk about it on a blog dedicated to environmental issues?
A number of years ago I wrote a book called ”Origins: the quest for our cosmic roots,” which explored the origin and evolution of the universe from before the Big Bang to the origin of life. This video, from the American Museum of Natural History, reminded me of the long journey I took in researching and writing the book, which included conversations with some of the world’s leading astronomers and cosmologists. Their work contributes to the knowledge reflected in this video. And yet at the end of many of the interviews I conducted with them, they often did not want to conclude with the scientific implications of what they were learning. They wanted to talk about philosophical and environmental implications.
As we near Christmas and the end of the year, I thought I would share a little of what they had to say — and what I learned. So here goes . . .
The Copernican revolution, followed by the Darwinian revolution, seemed to tell us that we were not very special. The former bounced us from being at the center of the physical cosmos to just another planetary object orbiting the sun. And the latter deflated any pretensions that we were at the center of the biological cosmos.
But now, the modern cosmological and astrobiological revolutions may be providing a new view. Recent findings suggest that the complex animal life that adds such rich biodiversity to our planet may not be very common in the universe. And intelligent life may be rarer still. Indeed, in our galaxy — and possibly in the universe as a whole — we may very well be it. And if that’s right, our rarity would make us quite special.
“There are 100 billion galaxies, 100 billion stars per galaxy, and we may be the only intelligent life. We’d better be really careful not to extinguish it,” said University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner when I interviewed him for “Origins.”
One lesson astronomy tells us is that we’re a tiny mote in a hostile void, and the nearest help is too far far away. We’re on our own, on spaceship Earth. So we have to solve our own problems. More important, we’re fantastically lucky because we’ve been given the gift of time. We have a least a billion years in which our home, if we continue to take care of it, will continue to suffice. What a chance, right?
People like Joel and I are figuring it all out by sitting on this tiny planet and collecting photons from space. So, far from feeling dwarfed by the vast reaches and energy of the cosmos, what we really learn is that we are the most remarkable and complicated product of cosmic evolution, and our potential is unlimited. In little localized pockets, the universe is capable of building some beautiful complexity.
I’d really like people to understand that fantastic groundwork has been laid — a cosmic experiment has been running for 14 billion years, and it has gotten to an interesting point. How incredibly tragic it would be if we foolishly pulled our own plug.
Here’s what Frank Shu, now a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, had to say:
The fact that we have no evidence for intelligent life elsewhere suggests that it’s just not there . . . If intelligent life is indeed rare, then it is our duty and obligation to try to preserve it . . . People talk glibly about extinctions. But the death of the human race — now that would be a tragedy beyond reckoning because it would mean the loss of any knowledge of Shakespeare, of Jane Austen, of Mozart. Suppose all that were erased. Wouldn’t that be a tremendous tragedy? All the great achievements just erased? That’s conceivable now because we are screwing things up.”
It can be argued that in some sense, the universe has become self-aware through us, and through any other intelligent creatures who may be making videos similar to the one above. And if the astronomers and cosmologists whom I spoke with are right — if intelligent life is rare in the universe, and especially if we’re it — then some portion of that cosmic self awareness, and perhaps all of it, could be lost if we failed to learn how to live sustainably on this planet. And that would be the ultimate tragedy.