Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hidden Costs of a Cosmic Perspective

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.

Wikipedia

       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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean
(pinterest)

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.