The View From the Center of the Universe

The View From the Center of the Universe

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From the Introduction to The View from the Center of the Universe:

In their hearts most people are still living in an imagined universe, where space is simply emptiness, stars are scattered randomly, and common sense is a reliable guide. In this imagined universe, we humans have no special place and often feel insignificant. But today’s golden age of astronomy is revealing that this lonely understanding of the universe is misguided. Our universe is rich, fascinating, and meaningful, and in it we humans occupy an extraordinary place.

If you close your eyes and try to picture the universe as a whole, what do you see with your mind’s eye? Shooting stars, spiral galaxies, an ember-red moon rising over an unknown planet? Images like these can evoke the strangeness that lies beyond the earth, but they don’t represent the universe as a whole any better than a single atom would, or your own face. The strange fact is that in this information age, when powerful and fast-paced images are our currency of communication, most of us have no idea how to picture the universe. But every prescientific culture did, and in their own cosmos they had a central and significant place.

Prescientific people had believable answers to big questions that became impossible to answer once we started to demand scientific accuracy. Does time run in one direction or is it cyclical? Has the universe always existed, or did it come into being? If it had a beginning, how did it start? What is it made of? How does it work? How do we humans fit in? People hardly even ask such fundamental questions any more, or appreciate that the answers would affect not only how we live but what we believe is possible – including all our goals and plans. Ours is probably the first major culture in human history with no shared picture of reality.

Many of humanity’s most dangerous problems arise from our 17th century way of looking at the universe, which is at odds with the principles of science that we blithely use in countless technologies. The main threats to our survival result from the almost total disjunction between the power of our technologies and the wisdom required to use them over the long period during which their effects will last. A wise perspective must include a cosmological timescale and be based in a reality that includes quantum physics, relativity, evolution and other scientific theories that underlie technologies like computers and cell phones, global positioning systems, and genetic engineering. You don’t have to understand those theories, any more than you have to be an expert in automotive mechanics to drive a car. But you can’t drive a car safely if you are blind to other cars and expect only horses and buggies to come around the next bend. As a society, we have been exploiting the powers of a universe to whose existence we are blind. Now we finally have the opportunity to end this alienation: the modern science of cosmology is discovering the universal reality in which we are all immersed.

Cosmology is a branch of astronomy and astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe, and it is in the midst of a scientific revolution that is establishing its lasting foundations. What is emerging is humanity’s first picture of the universe as a whole that might actually be true. There have been countless myths of the origin of the universe, but this is the first one that no storyteller made up – we are all witnesses on the edges of our seats.

The last time Western culture shared a coherent understanding of the universe as a comforting cosmic dwelling place was in the Middle Ages. For a thousand years, Christians, Jews, and Muslims believed that the earth was the immovable center of the universe and all the planets and stars revolved on crystal spheres around it. The idea that God had chosen a place for every person, animal, and thing in the Great Chain of Being made sense of the rigid medieval social hierarchy. But this picture was destroyed by early scientists like Galileo who discovered about four hundred years ago that the earth is not the center of the universe after all. The idea of the cosmic hierarchy lost its credibility as the organizing principle of the universe, but those early scientists couldn’t replace it. Instead, for centuries they were able to say with authority what the universe is not, but not what it is.

With little data from beyond the solar system, early scientists extrapolated a bleak picture of the universe as endless emptiness randomly scattered with stars. When the French physicist-mathematician-philosopher-monk Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) absorbed this post-Galileo picture, he experienced a cosmic malaise that no one had ever before expressed in literature: “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.” 1 From the medieval universe, which had felt like a magnificent, high-ceilinged cathedral, Pascal felt tossed into a “scientific” universe that was cold, shapeless, and incomprehensibly huge, in which humans are rootless and insignificant. This impression of the universe has lasted to this day.

Cosmically homeless, our culture over the centuries downgraded the importance of having a cosmic home; today “the universe” in the popular mind has become little more than a shapeless space or a fantasy setting for science fiction, neither of which appears to matter much in what people call “the real world.” In a reversal of all historic and even prehistoric precedent, it is normal today to consider people who are more concerned with cosmic reality than with making money to be out of touch and unrealistic. As a people, we now have the scientific ability to see so much more deeply into the universe than ancient people, yet we experience it so much less and connect with it almost not at all. This widespread cultural indifference to the universe is a staggering reality of our time – and possibly our biggest mental handicap in solving global problems.

The modern world has so deeply absorbed the four-hundred-year-old picture of a universe in which we have no special place that it seems like reality itself. But actually this Newtonian picture is founded on physics that explains accurately the motions of a single star’s planetary entourage, but not the entire universe. Until the late twentieth century, there was virtually no reliable information about the universe as a whole. That has now changed. New kinds of powerful telescopes including the Cosmic Background Explorer, the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellite observatories, and the Keck Telescopes in Hawaii and other huge new ground-based telescopes have begun to provide the first reliable data, not just about the nearby universe but also about the early universe and the most distant galaxies. Astronomers can now observe every bright galaxy in the visible universe and can even see back to the cosmic “Dark Ages” before galaxies formed. Voluminous data from the never-before-seen universe are supporting exciting and counterintuitive directions of thinking. The great movie of the evolution of the universe is coming into clearer focus: we now know that throughout expanding space, as the universe evolved, vast clouds of invisible, mysterious non-atomic particles called “dark matter” collapsed under the force of their own gravity. In the process they pulled ordinary matter together to form galaxies. In these galaxies generations of stars arose, whose explosive deaths spread complex atoms from which planets could form around new stars, providing a home for life such as ours to evolve. Clusters, long filaments, and huge sheet-like superclusters built of galaxies have formed along wrinkles in spacetime that were apparently generated before the Big Bang and etched into our universe forever. There may also have been different Big Bangs creating different kinds of universes beyond our own. In fact, instead of starting our origin stories “In the beginning” we may need to humble the phrase to “In a beginning” which is an equally accurate translation of the Hebrew word Bereshit at the beginning of the Bible. Or we can simply say, “In our beginning.”

The possession of this new story is a gift so extraordinary that most of us don’t know what to do with it. We have been living for centuries in a black and white film. There were no obvious gaps in the scenes before us, so we didn’t notice that anything was missing. Becoming aware of the universe is like suddenly seeing in color, and that changes not just what’s far away but what’s right here. The universe is here, and it’s more coherent and potentially meaningful for our lives than anyone imagined.

Most of us have grown up thinking that there is no basis for our feeling central or even important to the cosmos. But with the new evidence it turns out that this perspective is nothing but a prejudice. There is no geographic center to an expanding universe, but we are central in several unexpected ways that derive directly from physics and cosmology – for example, we are in the center of all possible sizes in the universe, we are made of the rarest material, and we are living at the midpoint of time for both the universe and the earth. These and other forms of centrality have each been a scientific discovery, not an anthropocentric way of reading the data. Prescientific people always saw themselves at the center of the world, whatever their world was. They were wrong on the details, but they were right on a deep level: the human instinct to experience ourselves as central reflects something real about the universe, something independent of our viewpoint.

Working from the assumption of their own centrality, the ancients took the cosmos – as they understood it – as the model for their lives and their religions. This book argues that we should, too. The big difference today is that science is finding out how the cosmos really works, and therefore we are the first generation that can know what the universe may really be saying. The universe is speaking and always has been, only now we humans have both the technological tools and the intellectual capability to hear and understand a lot of it.

The discovery of our universe challenges us to reframe everything, and this is truly difficult. For the vast majority of busy people, there’s little point in learning a lot of science unless you can do something valuable in life with that knowledge. We want to show you that you can. The aim of this book is not only to help people understand the universe intellectually, but also to develop imagery that we can all use to grasp this new reality more fully and to open our minds to what it may mean for our lives and the lives of our descendants. As we do this, we begin to discover our extraordinary place in the universe.

Unlike earlier cosmologies, the new scientific story is not intuitively simple. It can’t be, because both intuition and common sense are always based on the assumption that we’re on Earth. There’s no way to have intuition about things one has never experienced, and most of the universe fits into that category. The new cosmology can’t be intuitively simple for a second reason as well: it is based on unfamiliar concepts including relativity and quantum physics. But these theories can be translated into ordinary language and compelling images. This book suggests mythic images that we can adapt to a modern understanding of the universe. This is essential, because just as scientific cosmology cannot be explained in numbers alone, neither can it be adequately explained in everyday language. Many religions have concepts that resonate harmoniously with aspects of the new scientific picture – concepts that can, in fact, help us tremendously to appreciate the depth and meaning of the universe – but all religions also have concepts that don’t. An attempt to explain the modern universe in terms only of a favorite religion would result in scientific ideas being crushed and distorted to fit narrow preconceptions, while beautiful and apt imagery would be dismissed. We need to find those concepts that work, and only those, borrowing from many religions as well as other sources.

A famous photograph taken from the Apollo spacecraft by the first human beings to orbit the moon shows Earth as a sparkling blue and white ball, suspended in blackness, with a sterile lunar landscape in the foreground. This photo jolted many people into realizing in their hearts what of course they knew intellectually: that maps and globes have imprinted a false picture of reality on our minds. The photo showed no countries on our planet, only land masses, oceans, and clouds. The endless preoccupation with nations and racial or ethnic groups has completely misled our intuitions. This modern icon of our gorgeous, undivided home planet shows the power of a new image to alter perceptions and attitudes. In this book we try to portray the universe in similarly meaningful pictures.

We use the word “picture” metaphorically, however. Any picture of the expanding universe can only be symbolic, because the universe can’t directly be seen. No one can step outside of it to look at it, no one can see all times, and over 99% of its contents are invisible. Symbols are the way to grasp the universe. They free us from the limits of our five senses, which evolved to work in our earthly environment. Symbols let us see the universal with our mind, which doesn’t have any obvious limits. And symbols are far easier to remember than a long, logical argument or a mathematical equation. Carl Jung wrote, “a symbolic work is a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings because even if we know what the symbols are, they do not refer to a given thing, like a sign, but are – bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore.” 2 Each of the symbols in this book represents a fundamental but incomplete insight about the universe, our unseen shore. No single symbol can ever represent the universe completely. To get a sense of the whole, we have to somehow absorb the meanings of all the symbols together, and this takes imagination. It’s ironic that seeing reality takes a lot of imagination.

This book places the scientific meat at the center, sandwiched between the human past and human future. In the first part we look at how earlier cultures saw the universe and how their cosmologies shaped people’s sense of what they were and could be. Ancient cosmologies created not only a meaningful mental homeland in the cosmos for their own members but also much of the mythological language, imagery, and questions that still matter today and that continue to inspire artists and thinkers. Although fascinating origin stories have been told around the world, here we focus on those cosmologies in the line of development toward Western scientific culture and on the two great cosmological revolutions that marked the shifts from one universe picture to another. In investigating these early cosmologies, we’re looking for time-tested, powerful symbols and other forms of expression and inspiration that touched our ancestors but that also resonate with essential modern cosmological ideas. We will in later chapters reinterpret them in light of modern cosmology so that these new-ancient symbols can represent the mythic power of the new cosmology.

In the central part of the book we present the new scientific picture by focusing on five aspects of reality that are universal. They are, in essence, the answers to these profound and timeless questions:

What is the universe made of?

How did it get this way?

How big is it?

Where did it come from, and where is it going?

Are we alone in it?

But the big question science does not answer or even ask is, what difference does this all make to me? This book will try to answer all these questions, including the last, but the real answer to what difference the new cosmology will make will only become clear as more people open their eyes to the possibilities.

In the final part of the book, we ask what the future implications of the new big picture may be for our planet, for the human race as a whole, and for each of us personally. In a world as complicated and volatile as today’s has become, in order to raise our probability of success, it’s essential to narrow the field of contending political and other ideologies to those that have some chance of succeeding in the real universe, and this book gives examples of how people might start thinking from a cosmic perspective about global concerns. A cosmic level of awareness is no longer a luxury. As Einstein is supposed to have said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

In the last chapter we explore how thinking cosmically might help us experience what it means to be the human part of the universe. Though people tend to focus on their differences – classifying others into us and them – when we humans confront the universe all differences among us become trivial: we vary no more than pearls on a string compared to what’s out there. And we pearls may be far more cosmically rare and precious than most people realize. It’s only because humans are all bunched together on one planet that we fail to see how extraordinary we are. Science is allowing us to start sketching the outlines of what it takes for a planet to produce intelligent life, and this is beginning to tell us what aliens can be like. In this way we can begin to situate ourselves among all intelligent life and see ourselves as others might see us. Intelligent life is neither incidental nor insignificant but has a place in the universe so special it could not even have been imagined before the invention of modern cosmological concepts. By understanding the universe, we begin to understand ourselves.

Traditional religious stories can still arouse a sense of contact with something greater than we are – but that “œsomething” is nothing like what is really out there. We don’t have to pretend to live in some traditional picture of the universe just to reap the benefit of the mythic language popularly associated with that traditional picture. People around the world should be able to portray our universe with all the power and majesty that earlier peoples evoked in expressing their own cosmologies. Mythic language is not the possession of any specific religion but is a human tool, and we need it today to talk about the meaning of our universe. Big changes are happening on our planet, and shepherding ourselves through them successfully is going to require tremendous creativity. An essential ingredient may be a cosmic perspective, and such a perspective is just becoming available. Not a moment too soon.

This book presents various kinds of explanations, including contemplations, symbols, metaphors, and for those who desire them, further details in the endnotes with data and graphs in key cases. (If the endnote number appears in ordinary typeface, it’s simply a reference; if the number appears in boldface, it provides explanation.) Please skip the explanations that don’t work for you, and don’t feel obliged to read the endnotes. What matters above all is not the details but the overarching realization that we are living at the center of a new universe at a pivotal time.

1. Blaise Pascal, Pensees (posthumously published 1670), Sec. III, no. 206. That this feeling was never expressed in medieval literature is discussed in C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: an Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964), pp. 98-100. 

2. Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature (Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press, 1966), p.77. [back] © Copyright 2006 Abrams and Primack, Inc.

© Copyright 2006 Abrams and Primack, Inc.