If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. - Carl Sagan
No conversation about everything could start without a discussion of, well, everything. We are all born into this universe, and it is, without a doubt, the most compelling mystery we are presented with.
There are many things we don’t understand — life, nature, quantum mechanics – but ultimately these are all byproducts of the infinite expanse that surrounds us.
Well, all right. Technically, the universe isn’t infinite. But I’m sure you’ve seen one of those videos where the Earth is shown in all of its large, beautiful, blue and white glory. But then it starts to pull back, showing Mars nearby, and Venus off closer towards the Sun. Before the camera even manages to pull back from Jupiter, the Earth has become an insignificant speck. But the camera keeps going – the solar system, the Oort cloud, the Milky Way, the local group of galaxies – and so on, until the Earth is nothing more than a dream, lost in a sea of stars. While eventually there would be an edge to the universe, it feels like we’ve reached infinity already.
And we’re stuck somewhere in the middle of it all. It’s difficult to observe our actual location, and our actual situation, because we’re fixed on this tiny grain of sand, trying to see to the other side of the Sahara. And to make matters worse, the distances are so large, that it’s even a strain for light. By the time it reaches us, it is millions of years old. As a result, the images we see in telescopes are not only showing us things that are far away in space, but also far away in time.
This interests me greatly, but it’s also a little disconcerting. On the one hand, our unique circumstance allows us to peer deep into the universe’s past and see how things existed in the early era of the universe. But on the other hand, it means we don’t really know what’s out there. We know what used to be out there. What is likely still happening out there. But we won’t know what’s happening right now until the light reaches us in another thousand, million years.
If the Universe teaches us anything, it’s that death and rebirth are fundamental pillars of existence. Stars are born from massive amounts of common, basic elements. During their lives, they turn those basic elements into heavier, more complex ones, releasing energy as they do so. Eventually, their fuel runs out and they explode, releasing everything they’ve created back out into space. Those pictures of expansive, beautiful nebula we see – and usually take for granted – are the result of horrific death.
It is also death that created Earth, and all the life on it. We are composed of the heavy, complex elements that stars produced in the early universe.
When discussing the universe, it is very easy to fall into the “insignificance trap”. That is to say, the universe is so large, and so grand, that the Earth and humanity itself has no meaningful significance. While our scale is minute, it is hard to make the argument that we have no reason to be here. There are no accidents in the universe. While we have yet to comprehend every detail, the universe works by a set of unbreakable rules. We, all of life on Earth, are not here by accident. Everything we do helps to reinforce the cycle of death and rebirth that rules all.
Still, alone and isolated on our little planet, we can’t help but wonder if there is any other meaning to our existence. When we look out at everything around us, we see a lot of energy, a lot of majesty, but nothing that can comprehend. While we are not an accident, we are special. Out of everything we’ve found, extraterrestrial life remains elusive. Some continue to seek out intelligent life, in the hopes that we can learn more about what it means to be a creature that comprehends.
Alas, the odds are against us. Even if we do find a planet like Earth, and even if we do find a way to prove that there is life on it, how do we communicate? Even if we beam a message at the speed of light to say hello, it would take hundreds of thousands of years to get there. All we would know is that life is possible outside of Earth.
(Side note: as luck would have it, a planet that might be similar to Earth was recently found. It is “only” 20 light years away, which isn’t bad. It’s unlikely that this planet has intelligent life. But even if it did, we face another set of challenges – communication over such distances, for example, would be quite difficult and lengthy.)
That leaves us with each other. Even though we can’t get closer to an ultimate, universal answer for why life like us exists, we can find meaning in each other. In some ways, we already do that. Our family, our history, our culture is rich and textured. Religion gives us a framework for purpose.
But outside of our own communities, we are fearful. We doubt more than trust, and expect the worst rather than hope for the best. We can do better than that.
The universe shows us our origins, and promises our fate. The least we can do while we are here is appreciate what we are given, learn what we can, and return to the cycle with a deeper appreciation of what exists.