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Cosmic Citizens

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

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More interesting than the weather (Credit: Steve Jurveston)

Our remarkable species has existed in its present form for about 100,000 years. That’s about 0.0025% of the total time that we think life has existed on this planet. We, and the vast network of life around us, occupy barely a couple of percent of the volume of this world – its surface, a few kilometers into its subsurface, and some way up into its tenuous atmosphere. The Earth is an end product of the agglomeration of the equivalent of about a trillion kilometer-sized planetesimals that themselves coalesced from the sticky microscopic dust of a proto-planetary disk some 4.5 billion years ago. Altogether that represents about 0.003% of the total mass of that original smear of dust and gas that stretched from a youthful Sun to far, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Today the Earth occupies about 0.0000000000000003% of the volume of space encompassed by a sphere just large enough to contain the orbit of Neptune. And it would take more than 4,400 of those spheres lined up edge-to-edge to reach the nearest star system and the nearest known exoplanet of Alpha Centauri B.

Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 200 billion stars. Seventy-five percent of these stars are not individually visible to the naked human eye, they are too small and faint – smaller and fainter than the Sun. The nearest large galaxy to us, Andromeda, is about 2,700,000,000 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit in distance, and is moving more or less directly towards us at nearly 70 miles a second. It contains about a trillion stars and will come lumbering into the Milky Way in about 4 billion years time.

Beyond this small cosmic patch lies a 13.7 billion year old universe containing as many as 400 billion galaxies and more than 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars and perhaps at least as many planets. In a few hundred billion years the accelerating expansion of space will isolate all these galaxies, stretching the light passing between them to such an extent that no observer in any one galaxy will be able to see the others.

And that, dear reader, is pretty much that.

We are, I’m afraid, an unfathomably microscopic presence amid all of this. But this is our lot, our serving of existence. We can ignore it, we can rail against the injustice of it, and we can invent reasons to disbelieve it. Or we can embrace this vast cosmic wellspring for what it is, our home.

About a week ago I participated in the BBC World Service’s radio show The Forum, talking about black holes, galaxies, and some of the fascinating peculiarities of this universe. I was also asked to come up with a “60-second idea to change the world”. Imagine, said the producers, that you’re president of the planet and that you can address something that bothers you or that you think would make the world a better place – radical or controversial, or just plain unexpected.

Eventually, after much pacing and gnashing of teeth I came up with this (download here)

The essence of the ‘big’ idea is actually pretty simple (and more serious than it might appear). Let’s treat our cosmic environment with the same level of seriousness as we treat all the ordinary stuff right under our noses. And let’s incorporate it into the fabric of our children’s education and our own lives. At school we’re taught grammar by learning about trees, cats, dogs, clouds, cars, and bicycles. We learn algebra with dull exercises about buying candy or sharing apples. Why don’t we do all of this with reference to asteroids, comets, planets, moons, stars, interstellar space, and galaxies? We can also count the moons of Jupiter, the craters of Mercury, the rings of Saturn and the number of stars in the sky. In doing so we’d instill a basic knowledge of our cosmic environment, bringing it to earth, into view. Adults could do the same. Stop making small talk about sports events and discuss something really big and important; supernova, life on other worlds, the fate of the universe. Don’t be bashful.

Why? Well, right now we are dusty little hominids in an unspeakably tiny bit of the universe, and unless we get a proper perspective this may be how we remain. A ready vision of our cosmic existence would help. It might make it just a little easier to be better behaved with each other, be more conscious of our species’ needs and the multitude of natural dangers facing us across not just years but millenia and eons. Maybe, just maybe, we’d think a little bigger and find some ways to extend humanity’s use-by-date by stepping out into the void.

In other words, by doing nothing more than applying our remarkable brains to learning a few more facts about the universe around us we might inch a little way closer to true cosmic citizenship. A simple act that could carry us to eternity as well as make our present lives so much better.


Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

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

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  1. 1. gesimsek 7:44 pm 10/25/2012

    Unfortunately, we have a Korean diplomat, who is proud of a Korean musician playing an MTV style song. When they said that music is a universal language, probably, they did not mean this.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Postman1 10:18 pm 10/26/2012

    Reminds me of this recent spacedotcom article:
    I worked with college grads who couldn’t name the planets in order and I doubt they could name our galaxy either. It seems that the first two years of college are now spent teaching what was once required to graduate high school. When did the three R’s get thrown out? Can we bring them back?
    Thanks, Caleb

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  3. 3. Daniel35 7:10 pm 10/27/2012

    What’s the point of taking a cosmic perspective when the cosmos is virtually infinite so we can’t have any significant effect on it? Understand and deal with the near future, like climate change, and maybe our descendents will survive to see a more cosmic future.

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  4. 4. Caleb A. Scharf in reply to Caleb A. Scharf 10:03 am 10/28/2012

    I think the point is that a cosmic perspective is precisely what helps us deal with things like climate change. It has been argued for example that the images of the Earth taken by the Apollo missions did more for changing the human mindset about what our planet really is (a fragile oasis in a big cosmos) than anything before. In fact, without a broader understanding of planetary science and the interplanetary and solar environment we’d be ill-equipped to either correctly interpret or model climate change or figure out what’s needed to mitigate it. So I respectfully disagree – I think that a cosmic perspective is vital.

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  5. 5. TheSkyCaptain 6:13 pm 10/28/2012

    I agree with Caleb. The more expansive your thoughts are the easier it is to fit details into place. True in life, nature, science, anything; key in physical and mental well-being.
    Only people who think big enough will come up with solutions to lead us into the future.

    Link to this
  6. 6. davparker 9:20 pm 10/28/2012

    I like this explanation of where we are to date but I’ll have to disagree with the following, not that it much matters in the grand scheme of things. Contrary to feeling insignificant I’m more amazed and feel more important that we can actually realize our spot in the Universe as we today understand it. It seems to me that our role is to become ever more conscious without losing our grounding to who we are and our responsibilities to our personal and collective Selves. The Universe seems to expand with our ability to grasp it. It is evolving as we grow our collective consciousness. No matter how far away we look or how closely we peer at particles. It is expanding. Matter fades in and out of existence. Are we the artists creating the world of matter, expanding it, flinging it in all directions simply because we believe it to be so? There is something very mystical about this. We are mystical beings who sometimes can fool ourselves into knowing everything, even the unknowable infinite. We create order with our rules but we can never shed the mystery that surrounds us. We seem to lose sight of this, especially in the Western world of thought. We can come home to ourselves through our appreciation and embrace of the mystical.

    “In a few hundred billion years the accelerating expansion of space will isolate all these galaxies, stretching the light passing between them to such an extent that no observer in any one galaxy will be able to see the others.”

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  7. 7. vinodkumarsehgal 7:31 am 10/30/2012

    Despite the unfathomably microscopic presence of human race in its present form amidst all the spatial and temporal vastness of the universe as we know, it has a unique status which no entity in the universe can compare with. As far as our knowledge goes, it is in the human beings only that consciousness manifests in its highest degree. This manifestation of consciousness human race sets it apart entirely from the entire universe. It is due to consciousness that human beings have the ability to grasp the presence of universe despite its unfathomably microscopic presence. However 400 billion galaxies, despite their unfathomably enormous size can not have even an iota of the presence of human beings. It is only and only human beings who KNOW that they are and also KNOW that Universe is. Galaxies despite their very very enormous size do not KNOW that they are or Universe is. The notion of “isness” of “self” and and “others” is essential and most fundamental attribute of consciousness.

    Mysterious existence of universe lies equally as much in consciousness as in trillion stars of Andromeda or 400 billion galaxies. But unfortunately, knowledge of Science about Consciousness is of very rudimentary form. It will not be exaggeration if stated that study of consciousness does not falls within the jurisdiction of Science. But then it is also a false presumption that Science is the only methodology to comprehend or understand realty and truth

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  8. 8. Aiya-Oba 4:43 pm 11/1/2012

    In the unbounded Cosmos, eventual evolutionary alignment of existence, according to Nature’s absolute logic; eternal oneness of pair (equator of self-contradiction), is the perfect State of All in all, the cosmological salvation of Spacetime-Continuum.

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  9. 9. Rikpar44 12:17 am 11/2/2012

    Huh? Say what?

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  10. 10. Rikpar44 12:23 am 11/2/2012

    My previous response was to Aiya-Oba – who seems to be somewhere out there in the Spacetime-Continuum looking for salvation – not to Caleb’s article. I thought I should clear this up.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Aiya-Oba 3:56 pm 11/3/2012

    Thanks Rikpar44, for your observation and insight. Cosmos is eternal singularity of Mass-Information-Energy
    -Aiya-Oba (Philosopher).

    Link to this
  12. 12. davparker 4:12 pm 11/3/2012

    Could it be that we may be the Universe achieving Self-awareness. That the Universe seeks self-consciousness. We are the Universe beholding its own, our own existence. Our consciousness combined with our senses, chiefly intuition, are the sensory organs of the Universe making this feat possible.

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