Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chet Raymo, "Starlight"

by Chet Raymo

"Poor Calvin is overwhelmed with the vastness of the cosmos and no small dose of existential angst. He is not the first, of course. Most famously the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wailed his own despair: "I feel engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing and which know nothing of me. I am terrified...The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me."

And he didn't know the half of it. Not so long ago we imagined ourselves to be the be-all and end-all of creation, at the center of a cosmos made expressly for us and at the pinnacle of the material Great Chain of Being. Then it turned out that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. Nor the Sun. Nor the Galaxy. The astronomers Sebastian von Hoerner and Carl Sagan raised this experience to the level of a principle -- the Principle of Mediocrity -- which can be stated something like this: The view from here is about the same as the view from anywhere else. Or to put it another way: Our star, our planet, the life on it, and even our own intelligence, are completely mediocre.

Moon rocks are just like Earth rocks. Photographs of the surface of Mars made by the landers and rovers could as well have been made in Nevada. Meteorites contain some of the same organic compounds that are the basis for terrestrial life. Gas clouds in the space between the stars are composed of precisely the same atoms and molecules that we find in our own backyard. The most distant galaxies betray in their spectra the presence of familiar elements.

And yet, and yet, for all we know, our brains are the most complex things in the universe. Are we then living, breathing refutations of the Principle of Mediocrity. I doubt it. For the time being, Calvin will just have to get used to living in the infinite abyss and eternal silence. He has Hobbes. We have each other. And science. And poetry. And love."

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