Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

In Praise of Insignificance


A couple of years ago, I attended my first Amaz!ing Meeting -- an annual conference sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), founded by magician, escape artist, and scourge of fake psychics and pseudoscience around the globe James Randi. One conversation in particular stood out. A young man came up to me after a panel and said that, as an atheist, he always feels at a disadvantage when talking to someone who believes in an afterlife: "Our outlook is just so... bleak in comparison."

I understand where he's coming from: many people think that a world view that doesn't involve an afterlife is a depressing option: why bother trying to be a decent, moral person, the reasoning goes, if there's nothing to look forward to after death?

We were interrupted before I could fully respond to this young man -- conferences are not an ideal format for these sorts of in-depth philosophical discussions -- but I do not think the lack of an afterlife constitutes a "bleak" outlook at all. What frightens people about their own mortality is the thought of not consciously being, and from that, perhaps, springs the human need to invent belief systems that reassure them that their death will not be the end. That, and an unwillingness to admit to ourselves just how insignificant we really are.

We are born narcissists, almost by definition, since we can only experience the world around us from our own perspective. In that sense, the world revolves around us, and no wonder the prospect of having our consciousness snuffed out unsettles us.

But empirically, it's a different story. Before Copernicus, pretty much everyone in Western Europe believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system, with the sun and all the other planets orbiting it, and man, made in the image of God, ruling over the whole shebang.

There was a very good reason people balked when confronted with scientific evidence to the contrary. Accepting Copernicus meant removing man from his place at the top of the cosmological food chain. “The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later wrote of the implications of a heliocentric universe to 17th century believers. “Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.”

Until the modern era of space exploration, however, when the Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the Ultra Deep Field:

You learn to redefine vastness when you're married to a cosmologist who thinks about these things for a living. Every speck in that image is an entire galaxy. Each one of those galaxies contains billions of stars, no doubt with countless undiscovered solar systems orbiting them. Somewhere in that vast expanse, floats our tiny blue planet. We are smaller now than ever.

Check out this famous image, taken by NASA's Voyager mission as it passed beyond the edge of our solar system:

See that tiny speck of light, inside the blue circle? That's Earth. In the dizzying expanse of the entire cosmos, we are so much smaller even than that.

If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one's insignificance. It's a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention. The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone. But knowing that doesn't make me feel bleak or hopeless. I find it strangely comforting.

Nor does it make me feel like nothing I do could possibly matter. Quite the opposite: everything we do matters a great deal. That's the paradox. It makes our short time here on Earth incredibly precious, in which every moment should be savored. I tell my husband I love him every single day, because those days are finite. Fifty years will be gone in an instant from a cosmological perspective. Our choices, our actions, how we choose to behave toward our fellow travelers -- random kindness to strangers -- all of this becomes tremendously important when one embraces insignificance... because this life is all we have.

Photos: (top) Hubble Ultra Deep Field. (bottom) The Pale Blue Dot (Voyager mission). Source: NASA/ESA. Public Domain.

Note: This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on my now-defunct Twisted Physics blog at Discovery News. Reposting upon request because it's no longer available online (the archives were deleted), and because, well, it seems especially apt for Thanksgiving week. Remember to give thanks for your own insignificance and for every precious moment of your time here on Earth.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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