Something short for you today, my friends. I have to apologize; I had wanted to do a longer (though still a “quickshot,” haha) review of the first book of William L. Shirer’s three-volume autobiography. However, it’s very large (492 pages), and this week I’ve been distracted by XCOM: Enemy Within and haven’t paid enough attention to my writing. 😄 I’ll try to do better next week. For now, though, here are some…somewhat cosmological musings inspired by something I read in the introduction of Mr. Shirer’s autobiography.
This book is called Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904-1930. It covers Shirer’s life up from his birth to the beginning of his time in Europe, for which he would become famous as a journalist covering the rise of the Nazis and the course of World War II. Before starting, however, he offers us his “own view of life, as a background to these memoirs.” (p. 10) I shall copy down the entire paragraph here:
“Only rarely have I paused amid the trivia of living, which make up so much of our existence, and out of which come the setbacks, the triumphs, the sorrows and the rare moments of happiness, to consider how puny and unimportant we all are, how puny, in fact, is our planet. Even the solar system, of which the Earth is a negligible part, is but a dot in the infinite space of the universe. The limited space and time that we can comprehend are nothing in the incalculable extent and age of inorganic nature. Who can say, then, that the purpose of the universe, if it has a purpose, has been to create man? Who can even say that there are not billions of other planets on which there is some kind of human life, perhaps much further advanced than ours, or at least more sane, meaningful, and peaceful?” (p. 10-11)
Those last lines refer to what he experienced during World War II, and later on, his thoughts on the many conflicts which followed it (such as the Vietnam War). Understandably, Shirer’s faith in humanity had been shaken (particularly his faith in the German people, as I’ve mentioned before). Who can blame him, given the various atrocities he’d witnessed? That’s not what I’d like to talk about today, though. I’d like to concentrate more on the first part of that paragraph: His musings on the ultimate insignificance of humanity in the grander scale of the universe.
I found these sentiments interesting, coming from a journalist or historian. I have most often seen them espoused by scientists, most often astronomers and cosmologists. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech comes to mind, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson has written more than a few lines on the insignificance of our place in the universe. Atheists also seem to love this line of thinking—in the view of many of them, such as Richard Dawkins, the insignificance of humanity proves that no God ought to be as interested in us as the Abrahamic ones seem to be, and the hostility of the universe proves that no-one is looking out for us from above.
It is, after all, a worldview very much linked to scientific discovery. While I’m certain other philosophers and thinkers probably got the same ideas even in antiquity, it’s really the sciences of astronomy, cosmology, and archaeology which have done the most damage to human conceptions of our uniqueness and importance. It’s easy to believe men are special when it seems the Earth is the only thing in the universe and the sun and stars revolve around it. When Copernicus discovered that we actually revolve around the sun, though…when astronomers discovered the sun is actually billions of times bigger than the earth, there are billions of stars in the sky, many of which are billions of times bigger than the sun, and that all are billions of times older than the human race itself, which occupies only an infinitesimally small corner of our grand cosmos…
Well, science certainly does lead one to think we humans, and all our experiences, amount to close to nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I’m not entirely certain I agree, though. Now, I have to admit that I’m not a scientist, and it may seem presumptuous for some nobody like me to disagree with luminaries like Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or even a famous journalist and historian like William L Shirer. I have disagreed with Dawkins in the past, though, so it’s not as if I’m in entirely unfamiliar territory. And besides, what other purpose does a blog have than to puff up its owner? 😄 😄
As tiny a spot as Earth may occupy in this grand universe, and as utterly insignificant a timespan across which its most well-known species may seem to have existed, our homeworld does have one thing going for it, IMO: In all the universe that we know of, Planet Earth is the only one which has given rise to beings which are sentient and self-aware, capable of thinking, feeling, and reasoning.
For all their size, age, and grandeur, this is something no other world in a galaxy filled with hundreds of billions of them can boast. Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun may be huge, dwarfing the Earth many, many times over, yet, in the end, all they are is gas. Incredibly super-heated gas, in the case of the Sun, but just gas nonetheless. They have no minds of their own and aren’t even aware of their own existences, much less capable of comprehending the processes which make them run. Humanity may not fully understand them either, but at least we’re making the effort. At least we can conceive of ideas like nuclear fission and fusion, and at least attempt to harness natural forces (like gravity) to our own ends. This is something no star, no giant fusion chain reaction, no matter how inconceivably large or old, has ever done or is capable of even attempting.
But humans can. And that, to me, is something to be proud of, at least to a small extent. We may occupy a spot in the universe so infinitesimally tiny it isn’t worthy of the slightest consideration on its own, yet within that tiny spot, we’ve constructed observatories, laboratories, and all manner of other devices which allow us to study the rest of it. Even if the only things we have so far are rough estimates of the universes’ size and age and the size and composition of the tiny fraction of celestial bodies we can detect, it’s still a demonstration of our sentience, a curiosity about and ability to learn more of the universe around us that, in all of infinity, only Earthlings seem to possess. Does that not make us unique, or at least significant?
Now, perhaps we’re not alone. Sentient alien species are a common sci-fi trope, after all, and Shirer himself pondered if there are not “billions of other planets” on which sentient life has evolved. That may be so. However, I’m not entirely certain of that either. To figure out why, allow me to introduce you to something called the Drake Equations:
Essentially, it’s an attempt at gauging the probability intelligent life will arise in the galaxy. Let’s say ours has a hundred billion stars. Sounds like a lot, right? But only a small proportion of them will have planets. And of those with planets, only a small proportion will have them within their “habitable zone,” i.e not close enough that liquid water necessary for life does not get burned, but not far enough that it freezes. And even within the habitable zone, there are tons of other conditions necessary to sustain life. You need to have some protection against radiation from space, you can’t be hit by too many meteors (this was what happened to the dinosaurs), you even need a tectonic system and tides (like what Earth has with our moon) for organic life to arise, at least as far as we know. And that’s just life on its own, mind you. Sentient life, at least life as complex as ours, has even more specific conditions necessary to evolve! So really, despite the massive number of stars in our galaxy, maybe a hundred billion of them, there’s only a maybe one in a hundred billion chance of sentient life evolving in any given star system. And that’s probably being generous! It’s possible there are even more conditions I haven’t thought of, making it even less likely for life (sentient or otherwise) to evolve. Thus, it may be possible that human beings are the only sentient species in the Milky Way, at least. Even if we only occupy a hundred-billionth of it, I’d say that tiny, almost-invisible speck of the galaxy has more going on than pretty much anywhere else within a few billion light-years. Isn’t that something to be impressed by, if not proud of?
I’d argue that it’s better than absolutely nothing, if nothing else. But I suppose it depends, like so many other things, on your perspective. 😉