Sunday morning reflection on our moment in the cosmos
On a clear night, we are blessed with a wonderful view of a star filled sky. Tonight, just before turning in, I stopped to stair up at the glittering patterns above me, and the vastness of heavens that our tiny planet sits in. I find something quite calming and humbling viewing that site.
It really is calming and humbling. We’re so, so tiny in the vastness of it all. With just our eyes we can only see perhaps 6,000 stars in our night sky. But our galaxy contains billions! And then to consider the vast space between each star, that the photons from those distant stars have traveled for thousands of years only to end their journey when they strike the eye of a tiny little mammal on a tiny little planet.
The more I’ve learned of the cosmos the more insignificant I’ve felt within it. But in a good way. To feel in size and temporality like a rain drop in a brief moment falling to the Earth. And the Earth, in the cosmos, just one planet around one star amonst 200 billion other stars in our galaxy alone. And to think there are 200 billion other galaxies? We are infinitesimal. Insignificant and yet significant.
Several years ago I was in the habit a spending lot of time with a telescope looking at stars, nebulae, galaxies and our nearby planetary neighbors. It was a kind of meditation on the above, trying to understand, or, to just begin to grasp, the reality of our existence in the vastness of time and space. Those long nights in the dark, looking up at stars thousands of light years away and the faint galaxies that were millions of light years away, letting my mind imagine the many possible worlds that might exist. To consider the possibility of other life forms, some possibly intelligent also looking up into the vastness of space just as I was, brought a strange mix of emotions. My mind would slowly vacillate from a kind of deep peace and sense of belonging even as I felt and acknowledged the indifference of the cosmos. That my life was the single momentary flicker of a summertime firefly and so too is that of humanity, just a moment. Night after night I both rested and grappled with these thoughts and the realizations that drifted from them.
We humans have only existed on this planet for 300,000 years (in our “modern form”). Just a blink of an eye in Earth history and even less in the history of the cosmos. For most of our existence it might have been difficult for a off-world visitor to even know humans were here. We fit into our landscape quietly. Just thousands slowly growing into millions. And then of course things changed. Our industrial civilization with its various conflicts and social forms has only a few hundred years. For all of our intelligence, we’re not very good at living our lives in the larger context. For the most part we’re not able to hold in our minds and daily lives a reverence for our moment in this larger continuum. As animals we react to what’s in front of us right now. It would seem our brains, in terms of evolutionary biology, are tuned to exist only in the moment as it exists in the much smaller context of our lived time and space. It makes sense for short term survival.
And yet, that moment-to-moment instinct to survive works against us. In some ways, not all that different from a bird or a squirrel, we focus on the immediacy of our days. The human dramas that play out in front of us in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods. And not content with those physical, “in real life” connections, we’ve created ways to interact via small glass screens with people all around our planet. Connecting but not connecting. War and conflict continue despite our increased ability to communicate. Planetary-scale problems, most notably climate change, deepen into crisis as we fail to grasp the imbalance we’ve imposed upon the delicate and fragile biosphere.
And so here we are. Tiny and alone on a planet that has, over 4.5 billion years evolved an incredibly diverse life support system. As a species we have simultaneously come to understand the complexity of our biosphere even as we’ve increased our exploitation of it. And so it is that with more than 8 billion of us, we are slowly coming to grasp the full scope of our crises. We have pushed our life support system to the edge. And yet, as I type these words, just outside my window everything seems normal. I hear a variety of birds going abut their lives, singing to one another in the forest. My impression at this moment is that everything is okay. There is no obvious crisis to be seen in my world in this moment. It would be easy to say that this planet is resilient, that it has been here for a long time and will go on.
And you know what? It will. It will. But we have changed it. Our planet is now caught up in a process from which there is no turning back. We are in it. My morning thoughts are of both the special significance of life on our planet, of the long evolution our complex biosphere but also of our place in the universe. Whatever happens on our planet in the next few months and years, whether we rise to the challenge of changing course, the planet will be here in a hundred years. A thousand years. Despite the havoc we have unleashed, life here will evolve to adapt. Much will be lost. In this tiny, tiny corner of the galaxy a species of animal that called itself Homo sapiens lived for a short time. To some degree came to know itself and its place in the larger cosmos. And then it flickered out. By its own hand or some other larger, cosmic event.
I struggle daily trying to come to terms with what we’ve done. But when I look up into the vastness of the night sky, at the thousands of nearby stars or the distant galaxies millions of light years away, I settle into a kind of understanding, an acknowledgment of the moment. As many others have said, we are made of star stuff and we’ll return to that one way or another. The universe doesn’t care. Whatever happens here, today, our planet will continue to spin on its axis as it revolves around the sun which will continue its journey around the galaxy. Our sun and solar system take 200+ million years to make one full orbit around the galactic center. For perspective, the last time our sun was in this place in its orbit the dinosaurs roamed the planet. They lasted millions of years.
I’m not sure how long humans last but this is our moment.