Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hidden Costs of a Cosmic Perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a satisfying success of book. And in his last chapter, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective,” I think he raises an unexpected and difficult question: where do we fit in to all this astral splendor? He acknowledges that his fascination with the cosmos can be a distraction from earthly and humane concerns. Here are passages.


       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, and that children are disproportionately represented among them….

       When I track the orbits of asteroids, comments, and planets, each one a pirouetting dancer in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity, sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.…

       And sometimes I forget that powerful people rarely do all they can to help those who cannot help themselves. I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is…the universe is even bigger.

     …[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 at the same time that we can embrace our kinship to all of it, life included—Tyson hints at the tension that a unified cosmic perspective entails. Much as we wish it weren’t so, we are odd ducks in a dark, dangerous ocean. For Tyson, our best spiritual move is to find “kinships” wherever we can, with our atoms and our stars as well as with our ancestors.

Tyson’s discussion resonates for me, in a reversed sort of way. The astrophysicist finds his most satisfying meanings in the physics of the cosmos. This retired English teacher finds more to learn and more meaning in the history of living things. I am more drawn to the wily skills that plants use to survive than I am to the evolution of galaxies, though I recognize my “kinship” to them as well.

I think such preferences stem from the differences among us all in where we seek that which is greater-than-ourselves, that which is comforting-and-coherent. Perhaps such searches were less prone to fragmenting in the days when the deity or deities whom nearly all of us believed in provided the answers. The faces of the god or gods or their incarnations smoothed the way to a unified vision of the human condition within the universe.

Today, Tyson and others help fit together the strange, new, matter-and-energy pieces of a secular cosmic vision.







Human Evolution, Backward and Forward

From Dutch graphic designer Jurian Möller, here’s a striking one-minute video that shows the evolution of humans from the present backwards and then forward again. At the bottom, the video tracks the number of years in the past along with the type of creature shown. The sound track hints at other changes along the way; listen for the chirping birds and the bellowing dinosaurs. And look for the big transitions, from water to land and from four legs to two.

Before I watched this for the first time, I wasn’t sure what I would see, how much of the whole variety of life over the ages would get included in one minute, all our distant cousins—plants, insects, snakes, birds—or just the direct line of our grandparent animals. How many years ago would be considered “our evolution”? 20 million years? 200 million? 2 billion?

See for yourself.

Our basic shape hasn’t changed that much— a head, four appendages, and a back end. The walking/swimming motion throughout the video nicely suggests how our movement triggered much of our evolution.

How long has “our” evolution taken? That depends how you define “us.” Before the 550 million years shown here, it took three billion years—nearly six times as long—for single cells to evolve from simple to complex. Was that part of human evolution? In any event, there were no complex bodies that moved and mated until about the time in the video.

Finally, our forebears in the video blithely walk right through several mass extinctions, not acknowledged in the video, including the largest one 250 million years ago when over 90 percent of species died off. Then and at other times, our steps could have been our last. We were lucky.