By Larry Klaes
Larry Klaes, a frequent Centauri Dreams contributor and commenter, here looks at a new book that explores humanity’s place in the cosmos. Is there a way to rise above our differences of outlook and perspective to embrace a common view of the universe? The stakes are high, for technology’s swift pace puts the tools of exploration as well as destruction in our hands. C.P. Snow explored the gulf between science and literature 50 years ago, but as Larry notes, the division may be broader still as we confront the possibility of intelligent life other than ourselves.
Just about anyone who has even taken the time to go outside on a clear night and stare up at the starry firmament over their head (assuming it is also largely free of the relatively recent artificial impediment called light pollution) has often been moved in rather profound ways by the sight, whether they are astronomically inclined or not. This feeling can be summed up, I think, by this quote from the artist Vincent van Gogh: “When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”
The Universe – or, I should say, what we can see with unaided vision, which amounts to several thousand stars (including the Sun), the Moon, and a few neighboring planets as viewed from Earth – seems to have always evoked such “spiritual” thoughts and feelings since the time of our very distant ancestors: There is the plausible theory that some of the animal drawings found in many of the caves of prehistoric Europe actually represent star patterns. The heavens were where the most powerful gods resided, both visible and hidden. The skies were also home to what various cultures considered their best members, once they passed on from this life (usually their rulers and warriors).
Then science came along and did its level best to end all this superstitious nonsense.
Oh, it all started out innocently enough. Some ancient Greek thinkers like Thales of Miletus simply removed the supernatural elements from the natural explanations for the nature of the world. Others like Democritus considered all gods to be the products of limited and flawed human imaginations and that only “atoms and the void” made up the real Universe. One man named Aristarchus of Samos went as far to say that Earth was a mere planet circling the Sun, which was just one of those numerous points of light in the night sky.
However, the ideas of these guys never quite caught on with most of humanity, which needed to know in their hearts that not only were they more than just a temporary collection of elements, but that someone or something out there considered them to be very special despite their often very obvious limitations and flaws. Thus for most of the next few thousand years, the West stuck largely with religion for their comforting answers, which did not have and often even rejected any solid evidence for the proof of its legitimacy.
Things started to really get torn apart culturally when the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came along. The turning point for this change is often cited as the day that the Roman Catholic Church told the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei to stop supporting the ideas of one Nicholas Copernicus (who was influenced by the aforementioned Aristarchus) and anything else that seemed to contradict what was written in the Bible – or else.
Although Galileo essentially complied with the Church authorities, the ball named science began to really get rolling after this event and gained speed in the following centuries. Among those who did the most to solidify science as the main way to view the Cosmos in those early days of the so-called modern era was Sir Isaac Newton, who showed that it was gravity which kept Earth orbiting the Sun rather than fly off into the void and not bands of angels pushing our planet around our star via God’s Will.
Ironically, Newton was also a devout Christian who intensely studied the Bible to determine, among other things, that the world would come to an end in the year 2060. This was not terribly strange, however, as most scholars of his time and place did not see a division between science and religion; they assumed that God had made the Universe and science was the divinely inspired way for humanity to learn how He did it.
Eventually, though, as science and technology gained a stronger footing in civilization, the division between empirical and spiritual knowledge grew to the point that even today, the general public tends to feel torn and alienated by the perceived coldness and fact-only basis of science and the emotion-based ideas of religion and spirituality. Many folks often end up choosing one viewpoint or the other, conflicting with the other side and their own thoughts and feelings in the process. The results are a current society that is a living paradox, one that has a firmer grasp on how the Universe began than before along with the tools required to make this possible, while at the same time remaining focused on our home world, our baser immediate needs, and holding onto beliefs which our ancient forbearers would still recognize.
Can the two sides be reconciled before our society is presumably wrecked by the cultural clash, and if so, how?
In 2011, Yale University Press released a book titled The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World. The authors of this work are Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, both professors at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who also happen to be a married couple.
As the subtitle of their work states, Abrams and Primack think that a “shared cosmology” could break this conflict our species is currently in: If we would all just agree on the origin and composition of the Cosmos as stated by modern science, and especially our place in it all, we will not only save ourselves but become truly universal beings with unlimited horizons and a renewed and vibrant sense of being, one that van Gogh with his need for religion via the celestial realm might have found comforting.
Image: The Carina Nebula in visible light. Credit: NASA.
So, do the authors have The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything Else? Well… like the world in which we reside, the results are at once both clear and more complex than a single resolution can provide.
The core of the concern held by Abrams and Primack – that industrial humanity has gotten away from its original ancestral views of the heavens and needs to reconnect with its cultural roots in order to truly make it in the Universe – is one I have long agreed with. Science via technology may know far more about the true makeup and actions of the stars and other worlds in space than our ancestors could even imagine, but modern civilization and its various trappings have also made many of us less aware of what goes on in the sky than our forbearers.
This disconnect has brought us to a strange state where we have the knowledge and ability to literally reach the stars, yet only a fraction of the resources and funding from our civilization goes to space exploration and science education. This has also led us to still act as if Earth is the focal point of existence and will somehow continue to sustain humanity even as we are now over seven billion in number and climbing literally every second. In essence, many individuals are intellectually aware of our true place in the Cosmos, but culturally we are still in the huts and caves, distracted into thinking otherwise by the smooth surfaces and shiny toys in those dwellings.
With The New Universe, Abrams and Primack make a mighty and interesting intellectual effort to explain our long history with the Cosmos and reconnect us with the heavens through modern science with some religious symbolism and ideas that simultaneously try not to turn science into yet another religion in the process. This effort is an outgrowth of their earlier collaborative book, The View from the Center: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (Riverhead Books, New York, 2006), and based on their participation in the Terry Lecture Series at Yale University in October of 2009.
The authors recognize that for as much as we have evolved in knowledge and technology since first emerging from the trees and savannahs several million years ago, our biology is still deeply connected to those tribal ancestors rooted in small communities and seeing the world as both infused and controlled by the supernatural.
We are still very much social animals, loyal to the views and beliefs of our groups, which vary across the planet. Abrams and Primack not only want to unite these disparate views through modern cosmology – the Universe started with the Big Bang, almost all of the Cosmos is composed of Dark Matter and Dark Energy – but they want it done NOW.
Their urgency comes from the view that the Twenty-First Century is a pivotal point in human history. We have the comprehension and the ability to know how existence really works and the means to lift ourselves out of the tribal mindset that is eating away at our planet’s resources and wrecking Earth’s environment. However, we only have so long to use our modern skills and tools before civilization loses its literal and collective fuel along with its focus, falling into a Dark Age that our descendants may never truly recover from. Or perhaps we may even drop all the way to the extinction of our species, taking many other living residents of this planet along with us.
I tend to agree with the authors of The New Universe that we are on the edge of either greatness or doom with our global society. I think that before the end of this century, humanity has to shed those ancient cultural and even instinctual views and behaviors which make us continue to act like we are still in little disconnected villages where the collective view of the world ends at our local horizons and warring on other groups will only have consequences for the enemy. We also need to be more aware of the potential threats from beyond Earth as well, such as from the planetoids and comets that wander out Sol system which could one day strike our world and cause devastation on a global scale.
This edge we are perched upon may not have enough leeway to allow us to wake up only when impending disaster appears. Would we be able to build a Worldship to conduct a celestial rescue of at least a portion of our species, for example, if most people remain ignorant of what is in the Universe and disconnected from it and have failed to support an infrastructure in space which would be required for the construction and operation of a giant vessel for carrying many humans safely across the Milky Way galaxy for thousands of years?
One beef I have with The New Universe is their attitude towards extraterrestrial life, especially the intelligent kind. It is clear that Abrams and Primack are in the camp that says Earth may harbor the only intelligent life in all of existence (or at least this Universe), although they throw in the word “possibly” and its proper variations each time the subject of its reality is mentioned. As with the Rare Earth folks, they too think that simple organisms may dwell on many worlds throughout space, but as life becomes more complex, so too the odds of it happening, until biological evolution comes to the human species, where the odds of making more than one version of us on another planet seem astronomical – or so they claim.
Image: Our place in the Universe. Credit: Yale University.
I get the distinct feeling that Abrams and Primack deliberately downplay the possibility for ETI to keep the focus on our species and civilization, which they already feel has had so many cosmic demotions in the last few centuries that the one which says we are just one of many intelligences in the Universe might somehow bring us down socially – despite the fact that the idea of aliens of all types has been an integral part of human society for generations now. While these fictional beings are often lacking in strong scientific integrity, they are part of our culture and they have created a level of cosmic awareness that likely did not exist in prehistoric times.
While it is true that we have no present scientific proof of extraterrestrial life and that any ETI which do exist are probably many light years from Earth, it does not help the cause of the authors to downgrade the possibility of life elsewhere, especially if they are serious about humanity becoming truly cosmically aware. The level of awareness they are asking for goes beyond just taking care of our planet. It means that our curiosity, drive, and even survival will cause us to move first beyond our home world and eventually our planetary system into the wider galaxy. Our knowledge of what exists among the 400 billion other star systems of the Milky Way contains many serious gaps, including the amount and types of alien life. ETI may or may not be an immediate concern for our species, but as students of the Universe, Abrams and Primack should know better than to dismiss something that could have a major effect on humanity in one form or another.
In regards to their views on ETI and the recent Centauri Dreams article on the hypothetical intelligence of stars, the authors discussed this subject and the possibility of galaxies and even the Universe as living entities in the FAQ chapter, which was clearly honed from the Q&A portions of their lectures and earlier book. Their answer is that galaxies are too large to be intelligent, in that it would take many thousands of years for the stars to communicate among themselves and millions of years for galaxies to talk to each other, assuming their thought waves or equivalents move no faster than light speed.
For those who wonder exactly who this book is for, the authors have said that it is essentially for everyone, while Primack also declared in one interview that The New Universe is aimed at the high school student both literally and intellectually. With the study of the heavens often being a great intellectual equalizer, educated folks of almost all ages who may be novices when it comes to astronomy and history – or who need some educational refreshers or just want our cosmological history presented in a concisely written package – will also find this work quite useful.
The fact that The New Universe is deliberately not some dry recitation of astronomy and history, makes a noble effort to reconcile the two cultures as defined by C. P. Snow, and implores its participants to care for our planetary home may ironically alienate some readers; however, the book’s title makes it clear up front what one is getting into, so the choice – just as it is with humanity when it comes to our place in the Cosmos – is ultimately yours.
The companion Web site for The New Universe, which includes among the information video presentations made specifically for the book, is here.