I watched the first episode of Fox’s new edition of “Cosmos” this week. I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been — surprised to see such an unapologetic paean to science on primetime American television. It captured beautifully the power and wonder of the scientific method, of humanity’s quest to explain its place in the universe. It waxed elegantly about data-driven decision making and hypothesis testing, about critical reasoning and status-quo questioning. And having Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm didn’t hurt.
I’m always struck by two thoughts, always in the same order, whenever something like “Cosmos” gets me thinking about the universe. The first is how incalculably small and insignificant I am — how incalculably small and insignificant we all are, here on this warm ball of rock in the cold void of space. There are galaxies beyond galaxies pressing on the feeble curtain of Earth’s atmosphere, infinities of nothing on our doorstep that swallow the planets and the moons and the stars. I will never see the Virgo supercluster, let alone the Milky Way. I’ll see Mars in images and X-ray diffraction patterns. I won’t even see all of Earth. The billions of planets in our corner of the universe are still too few, too far between, too spread and scattered through a field of black interstellar velvet, impossible to traverse. What can anything I hope to do matter, when something like only four percent of the universe is matter? If I was to conquer the Earth and carve my likeness in every mountain and write my name in every desert and blaze my way into every book and song and poem mankind could concoct — it would still be fleeting and immeasurable when compared to the humming of the planets and the singing of the stars. There’s just so much space out in space, a kind of cold, insufferable beauty that makes me marvel at the grandness of creation and shrink into my own inconsequence at the same time. I don’t know if I’ve managed to capture in words here the enormity — the primordiality — of this feeling. I feel like I’m both adrift and confined, floating unmoored and yet suffocated by the sea. I feel as if the sheer amounts of nothing surrounding the earth are bearing down on me like a weight, impossibly heavy, and crushing me with the realization that I will die with the mysteries of the universe unknown and gnawing at my soul. That I will die, and the universe will continue. That I will die, and in the entirety of my life I will have experienced the smallest fraction of a fraction of what the cosmos have to offer — and I could live a thousand lifetimes more, on a thousand different planets, around a thousand different stars, and the same thought would still be true.
Then, slowly, the second thought boils up from deep within the first. It starts, usually, by thinking about life instead of death. About how there must be life out there — somewhere — and how statistics can’t be so wrong that more than a billion billion planets wouldn’t manage to pull off what Earth has done. I think this, but the thought is usually quashed by Fermi’s paradox, which brings me back out into the unquenchable abyss, into that endless maw of loneliness, spiraling along the spirals of our galaxy until I’ve spun all the way back out into nothing. And it is here, always here, right at the event horizon before I fall alone into that endless astral gulf, when the second thought blossoms into being:
We live in an infinity of nothings, and yet a universe of everything.
Everything is out there, waiting for us to discover it. That’s why talking about the scientific method is so important: the joy of discovery. It’s a primal emotion that has driven mankind onto two legs, across oceans, up to the moon. We’re not crushed by the realization that there’s too much in the cosmos to comprehend. We’re driven to comprehend as much of it as possible while we’re around. “Cosmos” (and, really, anything in the same vein) hit on that joy of discovery in me, and hopefully in millions of other children and young adults throughout the country and the world. The world needs — and deserves — more thinkers and fewer dogmatists.
But the thought goes deeper than that. Tyson used a line in that first episode of “Cosmos” that I really liked: that we are made of “star stuff”. Our bodies’ iron, carbon, calcium — our blood, our flesh, our bones — were formed, unfathomable ages ago, in the heart of a star. We have the heavens within us, written not in our DNA but in our very molecules and atoms, and we carry this celestial signature about every extraordinary (and every mundane) minute of our lives. We are the universe. The universe is us.
If you’ll allow me a tangent that will eventually reconnect with this thought, let me to take you on a journey through time and space, albeit a bit shorter in both dimensions than Tyson’s. The year is 2007, the place is William S. Hart High School, and I am reading (or am being forced to read, who knows) James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I wish I could tell you I remembered what the book was about at its core, but I really only remember it in slivers and images. One of those slivers is from the very end of the book, a diary entry where the main character (Stephen Dedalus, the titular Artist as a Young Man) talks about his drive to be great writer/poet/artist/whatever it’s been awhile since I read this. I apologize for quoting James Joyce for what I promise is the first, last, and only time in this blog:
I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
I read this as Dedalus’ desire to bring his own individual perspective into the greater fabric of humanity’s story — how to be great, the artist must be able to turn his or her individual perspective into something universal and beyond oneself, something that speaks to what it means to be human, not what it means to be Stephen Dedalus… though you can’t lose the Stephen Dedalus in the process.
“Cosmos” and Tyson, an innovator (Daedalus?) in his own right, are saying something similar: that we are forged in the smithy of the stars, and this is the conscience of our race. We are a part of the universe, and it is our nature to question and explore it, but only through our own minds and thoughts and deeds does this cold sea of galactic whorls and stellar eddies have a meaning, a warmth, a light, and a life. The universe is grand and impressive and will outlast us all, and our goal as a species should be to understand the universe as a whole, not just ourselves. But all of that tremendous amount of nothing is just that — nothing — without our everything within it.
So keep learning, keep thinking, keep questioning. It illuminates the darkness, one neuron — one nebula — at a time.