Embracing Our Cosmic Insignificance

Embracing Our Cosmic Insignificance

Life. Some find it too short. Others find it too long. Others find it too long and intentionally shorten their life story (or that of others, as illustrated by the recent world events).

One thing is certain about living – it eventually ends. The story of every fruit fly, beggar, king, janitor, professor, singer, barbaric STM official (with a passion for knitting and mortal combat), actor, politician (the latter two usually have a lot in common) usually doesn’t have a happy ending. We all perish. Also, we perish only once. Life, spanning an average of 67.2 years might seem too short to have any meaning. This insignificance has bothered several of us. The unbearable lightness of being by Milan Kundera expresses this sentiment: our single and short life implies that it can be taken lightly; however, the fact that we are given just one life – no dress rehearsals, no second chances – makes this lightness unbearable.

Rabindranath Tagore held a different view and believed that “if you are not happy just at the mere fact that you exist, then you don’t deserve to exist.” This is because Kundera’s lightness of being from the cosmic point of view proves liberating and a little less unbearable because it reminds us how fortunate we are for our existence. So let’s take a step, or rather, several steps back and examine our current position. In doing so, we find what is perhaps best said by Daniel Dennett:

Every living thing is, from the cosmic perspective, incredibly lucky simply to be alive. Most, 90 percent and more, of all the organisms that have ever lived have died without viable offspring, but not a single one of your ancestors, going back to the dawn of life on Earth, suffered that normal misfortune. You spring from an unbroken line of winners going back millions of generations, and those winners were, in every generation, the luckiest of the lucky, one out of a thousand or even a million. So however unlucky you may be on some occasion today, your presence on the planet testifies to the role luck has played in your past.

Carl Sagan also offers this cosmic perspective which helps us to view our beloved earth as a ‘pale blue dot’. When we adopt this vision, nationalism, patriotism, and other dangerous words (which usually end in –ism or -ion) suddenly lose their importance. Instead, according to Carl Sagan, it highlights the importance of “dealing more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we’ve ever known.”

Neil Degrasse Tyson, the Carl Sagan of today, shares the same opinion. He argues that visiting his and Sagan’s cosmic vantage point renders the constant conflicts in the name of religion and boundaries silly, immature and egoistic. This is very similar to an adult (a word to which we generously associate the labels – grown-up and matured) who treats a child’s complaints about broken toys and bruised knees (all traumatic experiences to a kid) as small problems.

This is why a crash course in astronomy is needed at every level. As students, it should inspire us to spend less time on our cell phones and social media sites. As researchers, it should broaden our minds, develop our attitudes towards learning and reduce unattractive competitiveness over journal names, the number of papers one has published in comparison to his/her neighbor, and impact factors (the academic equivalent of brands and equally worthless). Finally, as human beings, it should humble us down so that we can live up to our scientific name (homo sapiens – wise men).

Astronomy is unfortunately and unfairly considered ‘useless’ compared to other sciences. However, it has the power to expand our view; reform our character and behavior towards each other and the world we live in. Astronomy can lower the omnipresent egoistic sentiments related to social status, race, culture, and language (desperately needed here in Quebec). Lessons learnt through astronomy are capable of maturing up the mindset of any individual, family, institution, corporation, and country. Anyone who relishes the cosmic outlook will have qualities that will make him/her a better policy maker (who will probably suggest replacing the bibles in the motel rooms of The United States of America with a picture of the universe and an arrow showing where we are) and truly develop this fraction of an iota of a crumb of a grain of the universe which we all call home.

Finally, a few words of the late Steve Jobs further illustrate how his mortality influenced his thoughts: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way that I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose”. Excellent words from an undeniably innovative man who nevertheless used his cosmic lessons very selectively and should have been more humane with his actions (Chinese workers and Emily Post will agree).

That being said, dear reader, I hope that your unbearably light life is as long as humanely possible, plenty light, and bearable to you (as well as those around you).

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