TOM REGAN: SUMMONING ORENDA
I once attended a conference at Harvard University that featured a number of very interesting speakers from a wide variety of disciplines. I was particularly excited about hearing one of the university’s prominent astrophysicists speak about the latest findings on the universe.
The crowd at the theater that day was a bit older and had come, I think, expecting to hear a little more star talk than physics. And mostly, that’s what they got. The speaker knew how to work his audience.
But at one point, he talked about the astronomer Edwin Hubble, and his observation that confirmed the universe is expanding, not contracting or stable. When Hubble made this finding in the 1920s, it turned the study of astrophysics and the universe on its head. And then the speaker noted the latest theory: “This expansion is speeding up, not slowing down.”
I raised my hand to ask a question.
“So what you’re saying, is that all the different stars systems are moving apart from each other at such a speed that one day, their light will never travel fast enough to reach other traveling star systems and the sky will be dark.”
I felt an uncomfortable rumble in the audience. They did not like this idea.
The speaker paused. “Yes,” he said. “That is what it means.”
In 2011, two scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for confirming that this is actually happening.
Recently, there was another bit of startling news. The universe is, well, dying. We are the peak of star formation. You might say our universe is in late middle age. We’ve still got 101050 years or so. There is no immediate worry. Things are a bit tighter here on earth, where we have about seven billion years until the Sun enters its Red Giant phase and consumes the Earth.
But, I can hear you say, by then humans (if there indeed humans left) will be in another star system, far away and safe from the Earth being consumed.
Maybe. Maybe not, if you listen to the imminent biologist E.O. Wilson, the man who knows more about ants and biodiversity than any other human, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, and one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.
He doesn’t buy it. (Nor the idea of alien beings coming to visit us.)
He invoked the memory of H.G. Wells and War of the Worlds.
“Wells had it right,” he said. “The bacteria and the viruses that we have spent millions of years adapting to would kill any visitor. And if we tried to go to another planet, the same thing would happen to us.”
We’re most likely not going anywhere.
And all this astrophysics chatter brings me to the point of this column: we’re on our own.
To paraphrase Carl Sagan’s great commentary on the Pale Blue Dot photo, no one is coming to rescue us.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” Sagan wrote .
”Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
No one is gonna float down, deux ex-machina, with all the solutions to our problems. We have to solve our problems on our own.
The Syrian refugee crisis. The Iran nuclear issue. Palestinians and Israelis. Sunni and Shia. ISIL. The overwhelming preponderance of guns in America that are undermining our culture. Police violence. Poverty. Climate change. Hunger. Pick your problem.
It is incumbent on every one of us who can act to help to solve the problems – to find a way to work with people who might look, or think a little differently than we do.
I don’t mean to be pedantic – people know we have problems.
But until we as a civilization really grasp the uniqueness of our situation, the imperative not to ignore what we share, that we are truly on our own, we ignore the world’s problems at our own peril.
Copyright Tom Regan 2015
Contact Tom Regan: firstname.lastname@example.org
The fate of the universe—heat death, Big Rip or cosmic consciousness? http://phys.org/news/2015-09-fate-universeheat-death-big-rip.html
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ Image Celebrates 25th Anniversary : http://www.penny4nasa.org/2015/02/14/carl-sagan-pale-blue-dot-image-celebrates-25th-anniversary/
Related on F&O:
Not finished with Earth, Deborah Jones, blog post
A Reflection On Easter, Math and Judas, Chris Wood (*subscription required)
Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.
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