Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry describes the biggest of topics, the workings of the cosmos. So it’s a pleasant surprise in the conclusion when he takes it down a notch and asks where, in all this astral splendor, do we humans fit in.
The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.
When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this earth without food or shelter….
When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets… sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.…
I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is…the universe is even bigger.
…[So I] think of people not as the masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years to the earliest single-celled organisms on Earth….If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we are distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.
[The cosmic perspective is] more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.
The cosmic perspective is humble….
[It is] spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious….
[It] enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small….
[It] opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another….
[It] not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.
In those last points—about the universe as a “lonely, hazardous place” and about our chemical and atomic kinships to all of it, life included—Tyson raises what for many people are difficult connections to feel warmly about. Appreciating all the kinships that he mentions calls for a rare range of empathy and imagination. The astrophysicist finds his meanings in the physics of the cosmos. I find more meaning in the history of living things. I am more drawn to the wily skills that plants and animals use so they can survive than I am to the evolution of galaxies, though I recognize my distant kinship to them as well.
Perhaps such spiritual kinships were less prone to fragmenting back when deities whom everyone believed in seemed to provide the answers. Divine faces smoothed the way to a vision of a divinely managed cosmos with the human condition tucked in place. Today, Tyson and others fit together—rough edges and all—the matter-and-energy pieces of a more faceless and formidable one.