Humans are microscopic

I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This entry is to mark the anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake & Tsunami of 2011.

Humans are microscopic creatures eking out a living on a tiny wet rock in an endless void. Natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanoes are catastrophic events to us—but to the Earth they are just the tiniest movements of rock or the slightest gusts of wind.

The plates of rock that comprise the Earth’s surface make a shift so small as to be invisible from orbit—a tiny pinhole in its surface ejects a few measly tons of ash into the air—a negligible few meters of water lap over the edge of one of its oceans—an insignificant whirl of wind stirs in its atmosphere for a few quick days—and the humans who live on that particular part of the planet’s surface face annihilation.

And these events affect nothing beyond the miniscule borders of our upper atmosphere. The sound is deafening to us; the universe hears nothing.

There is no better demonstration of what humankind is ultimately up against. All the life we know to exist in the universe is right here on this planet, and its existence relies on very rare conditions that could change very rapidly. The geological and atmospheric forces of this planet alone could wipe us out. This is to say nothing of extraterrestrial threats such as comets and meteors: wandering specks of matter that, if probability guides them our way, could render the planet uninhabitable for humans.

We know that the star our planet orbits will eventually expand like a nuclear balloon, swallowing the Earth and dissolving it into plasma, before exploding and scattering our atomic components across space. But this star is just one of a number so large that there is no name for it. The universe will not notice.

The destruction of our planet will be no more significant than the kicking over of an anthill.

Yet this does not make me feel insignificant.

Instead, this understanding illuminates the value, the preciousness, of Life on Earth.

Nowhere else in the universe is matter known to have organized itself into self-replicating, self-contemplating systems. It is in the central nervous systems of these systems that concepts like meaning and purpose exist. By burning metabolic fuel they get entropy to work for them rather than against them, surfing a thermodynamic wave. Even if life like this does exist elsewhere in the universe, it has never been seen to leave its home planet and colonize others.

If a change so infinitesimal as the shifting of tectonic plates can cause such devastation, what chance do we stand against the vacuum of space, the solar wind, or the incomprehensible distances between stars?

The Earthlings who eventually make it off this planet to colonize other worlds may not be human—but there is a chance they will be our descendants, which will mean that we did our part.

I want this to happen. I want copies of fragments of my genetic material to make it beyond our atmosphere and out of this solar system before it’s recycled. I want some of my information to survive the great solar document shredding.

This transformation into a space-faring species cannot happen without huge social and cultural change. There are so many unknown aspects about the future that no one can predict which traits will best equip us for survival. I don’t need to, though, because the future is going to happen anyway and evolution will decide whether we have a place in it or not.

We should occasionally remind ourselves that we’re all stuck on this rock together. In the cosmic game of survival, we are each others’ only hope.


Give him a piece of your mind

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: