Tag Archives: philosophy

Stars Define Our Place in the Universe

6 Aug

http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/08/03/208647989/how-to-fall-forever-into-the-night-sky?utm_source=npr&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130805

How To Fall Forever Into The Night Sky

by Adam Frank

August 05, 201310:16 AM
The Milky Way dominates the sky over Chile's Atacama Desert, home to the European Southern Observatory.

The Milky Way dominates the sky over Chile’s Atacama Desert, home to the European Southern Observatory.

It’s your neck that’s the problem. Your neck is lying to you.

All your life you’ve had to look up at the stars. You walk along on a summer’s evening and they’re always there, those stars, those bright mysterious points of light, waiting for you to notice, waiting for you to understand what they are saying about time and space and your own place in it all.

But to see them you have to crane your neck. You have tilt back that big stone of a head to look up. Lets face it, that’s uncomfortable. And more to the point you can’t really sustain that head-craned-back position for anything more than a few minutes. That’s why the only way to really understand the real truth of the stars is to lie down.

First you’ll need to find a nice place, somewhere with the darkest skies possible. It’s got to be a good place to lie down too, someplace comfortable. A wide-open field is best. Then, once you have settled down in your dark, quiet spot take a long deep breath and face out.

That’s right, outwards, not up!

You see “up” is just an illusion. You’re living on the surface of massive rock that’s been pulling you down with its incessant gravity since the day you were born. It’s fooled you into thinking the stars are “up” there, “up” in the sky, high above you. They’re not.

Now that you are lying down, you can get to work. Imagine for a moment flattening the Earth into a thick wall. Imagine that this wall is not something below you but … behind you. You aren’t lying down anymore; you simply have your back pressed against something. And now what do you see in front of you?

Stars.

What do you see if you look toward your feet?

Stars.

And if you look to your right or your left or toward the direction the crown of your head is pointed, what’s there?

Stars.

Finally, we come to the real kicker. That wall your back is pressed up against, what’s behind it?

More stars!

There, now you have it. Now you can feel the real truth, like vertigo, as you fall into the starry multitude. These stars aren’t twinkling lights above your head, they are all suns; vast spheres of thermonuclear burning gas. And, as we have just recently come understand, almost all of those suns support their own families of planets. All those stars, all those other worlds — they’re everywhere. Now you can finally feel that you are there too, right in their midst.

Time now for the second big gestalt shift, the next change in perspective.

With your eyes aimed forward, focus on just one star. The sun (and its likely planets) that you are staring down lies more than 24 trillion miles away from you (a light year is about six trillion miles and the nearest star is more than four light years away). Now shift your focus and pick out another star, one that is close to the first. They look like neighbors. But that is just another deception. Your second star may be 10, 100 or 1,000 times farther away (or closer) than its neighbor.

All those stars, all of their planets, they aren’t pressed onto the surface of a dark upturned bowl; they’re arrayed in the three dimensions of cosmic space, like fireflies scattered across a summer field.

There is no up or down and you are not a resident of some city, some state or even some nation. You are not a Democrat or a Republican, a dockworker or a doctor. Right now, right at this very moment, you are a free agent hurtling through the midst of a vast city of stars, an all-encompassing architecture of suns.

So remember, always face outward into the surrounding sky. Because that is your true home.

Advertisements

You.

2 Oct

Just some scientific food for thought on a MLB playoff filled Sunday afternoon. This just struck me as a very thought provoking piece that is somehow introspective on a cosmological scale… as bipolar as that sounds.

This is the first part of the introduction to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

 

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually are about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life it curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary drugstore – and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and plants, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn’t actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other physical properties on which our existence hinges. There needn’t actually be a universe at all. For the longest time there wasn’t. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing – nothing at all anywhere.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and they assemble in suck a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed wince the dawn of time, most – 99.9 percent – are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a plane that is very good at producing life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself – shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything – and to do so repeatedly. That’s much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get form “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen, then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer, and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, everyone of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.

 

”The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

– Freeman Dyson

%d bloggers like this: