I love space. It started, I think, in the mid-90s when images from the Hubble Space Telescope began to do the rounds. To see a whole galaxy on a postcard rendered one speechless. And the Hubble Ultra Deep Field – ancient galactic swirls reduced to pretty smudges of colour floating in a black ocean like outlandish deep-sea fish – stopped thought in its tracks.
Over time I came to realise that my space obsession was actually a fascination with how we relate to the cosmos today. Why does this matter? For me, it comes down to what the cosmos represents: the whole of existence, reality in toto, the sum of all parts and anything more than the sum. Our relationship with this, whether we’re aware of it or not, will profoundly inform our experience of life.
How we conceive this whole determines to some extent our relationship with it. Our vision of what it is forms the ultimate context for how we live in it. Every culture and age creates its own idea of the cosmos, each framing in its singular way an idea of ourselves, our role or place in the grand scheme of things, our sense of purpose and meaning,
So how has our modern conception of the cosmos shaped our modern sense of who we are? This, I believe, is a deeply intriguing question and it lies at the heart of a number of projects I’m working on this year.
One project is a collaboration between me and a photographer friend. I can’t go into detail at present but it involves the world’s leading optical and radio telescopes. Another project is a series of city stargazing events – talks and workshops under the stars led by astronomers and cosmologists. Another is to collect people’s thoughts and feelings inspired by a clear night sky.
The night sky, of course, has shaped our notion of the whole since the dawn of civilisation (and no doubt long before). In medieval times it was viewed as a realm of divine perfection, a different reality to the one we experience on the ground. Galileo’s telescope put paid to that. His deduction that the shadows he could see on the moon were those of mountains collapsed Heaven and Earth into a single domain – the domain of imperfect nature.
Since then, our ideas about the age, size and fundamental character of nature on the grandest scale have demanded continual revision as ever-more-powerful telescopes have probed the heavens. Less than a hundred years ago, for instance, the night sky was the cosmos. It contained just a single galaxy - ours - and it was stable, fixed and eternal. Then scientific cosmology came of age - and shattered our illusions.
The night sky today is but a shadow, a glimpse, a miniature of what’s out there – it is a little porthole looking out onto an unfathomably vast arena. The cosmos is no longer unchanging, incorruptible, forever. It is dynamic and perishable. Its stars and planets are as mortal as men; it is an epic crucible of creation and destruction.
It is also weird. It came from nowhere (as far as we know) and is flying apart, driven by an unknown energy. When black holes were posited in the 1930s as an outcome of the equations, they were so counter-intuitive even Einstein couldn’t believe in them. But the freakiest fact of all is the real theoretical possibility that the cosmos encompasses not just our universe but many.
How, then, has this, this brain-curdling, supermassive, creator-and-destroyer-of-worlds cosmos affected our view of ourselves?
Part of the problem, from a human point of view, is the sheer immensity of it all. The fact that we are living on a pipsqueak ball of rock in the boondocks of an average galaxy, one of a 100 billion, brings on distinct feelings of provincialism and smallness. And we are just as diminutive in a temporal sense. Modern humans have existed for 200,000 years, industrial civilisation for 250, an infinitesimal pinprick of a moment in comparison to the age of our 13.7 billion year-old universe.
This process of cosmic de-privileging started when Copernicus displaced the Earth from the centre of the universe in 1543 and we have struggled to come to terms with our sense of insignificance ever since. It continues to haunt us in present times, reinforced by the knowledge of our simian ancestry and the accidental nature of our emergence as a species on the cosmic scene. And what of our future? Our planet has witnessed billions of species over the course of its history, most of which have long disappeared as their native ability to survive lost out to the changing environment. How will we fare?
The inexorable retreat of a human-centred cosmos has gone hand-in-hand with the retreat of a meaningful one. Once upon a time nature was pregnant with intelligible significance; it was moved by spirits and gods who were able to communicate with us through the flight path of birds or the movements of planets. It was ensouled, and our own souls, our subjective selves, were subsumed within this cosmic spiritual ecosystem. But the more we have applied our objectivity to nature, the more we have explained how it actually works, the more its soul has seemed like a machine, a cause-and-effect automaton desaturated of intention or intelligence.
Now the night sky stares back at us impassively, the universe has no identifiable purpose, and nature holds no message that we, humans, can relate to and interpret. We, conscious of ourselves, yearning for a meaningful connection with Creation, are cast adrift in its immense reaches of cold, black indifference.
Looked at in this way the effects of the modern cosmos on our sense of self have been largely negative. Seeing the bigger picture can be daunting and unsettling. The universe seems so vast, so aloof, so powerful and indiscriminate, so pointless and purposeless, so mechanical and uncommunicative, so un-human, it is easy, as a human, to feel estranged from it, radically different to it, alienated, separate.
Looked at in another way, however, the universe is a profoundly unified entity. It is nature in its entirety, a single system, whose laws, constants, interactions and fundamental stuff are the same wherever you are. It can account for all known phenomena. It is the creator and common ancestor of everything it contains and everything it is – planets, stars, matter, energy, light, life.
It is from this unity that we have emerged. We are its creation, inescapably a part of its infinitely complex web of interconnection. We have grown from the cosmos – not out of it, but into it. We cannot not be in it, not be connected to it. We live within its bounds and under its conditions. It is our parent and our home.
This picture of a unified cosmos, a unity that includes us, has been bequeathed to us by science. Paradoxically, our modern existential disorientation and spiritual anxiety are also the result of a worldview which science has largely been responsible for. Both the negative and positive arise from the same source.
Science has opened our eyes to the grandeur, sophistication and interconnectedness of the physical cosmos, and it has enriched and deepened our wonder as a result. But to do this, it has had to demythologise, disenchant, despiritualise and depersonalise reality, rendering it impregnable to the distorting prism of human-generated meanings and the subjective contents of the human heart.
The question is, where does this leave the human heart? If the cosmos is fundamentally meaningless, are the meanings we bring to it also meaningless? What would this mean? Is the meaning we find in life actually an illusion, non-existent? Are our values and purpose actually pointless?
No doubt we all have our own answer to this. Personally, I feel another blog coming on...