You Are Here: An extra-solar point of view

By Jacob Billings

Originally published Spring 2013.

sulcus169“Whenever life gets you down, Mrs Brown – And things seem hard or tough – And people are stupid, obnoxious, or daft – And you feel that you’ve had quite enough – Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving, and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour . . . ” –Monty Python, The Meaning of Life.

Suppose, for an instant, that we look at ourselves at a distance. Let’s view ourselves beyond rugged individualism and societal collectivism, on a broader view than observes the intertwined ecosystem amidst which our populace is set, past even the infinities of the boundless cosmos, and even into the multitude of different possibilities for space and time. Monty Python’s Flying High Circus approached this scale in their epic 1983 film, The Meaning of Life. Three hundred years into Western Enlightenment, scientists observe this scale of understanding in postulates of quantum eigenstates that beget whole universe by the random manifestation of collections of matter/energy, and the existence of the multiple universes as a byproduct of cosmic inflation occurring between 10−36 and 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang. Looking from these heights, what can be said about us?

Let’s start from the outside edge of this scale in answering this last question. Amid the boundless potentialities of quantum events is the possibilities that zero energy particle pairs may spontaneously come into existence. This so-called vacuum fluctuation forms the basis of standard cosmological theory. Incidentally, Buddhist cosmogony is validated by this model. In their view, the universe began as a spontaneous fluctuation, arising out of nothing. The fluctuation even has a vocalization, the syllable “Ohm.” Whatever its sound, out of nothing, one such vacuum fluctuation formed a quantum bubble, which had the precise composition needed to allow it to overcome immediate collapse under its own gravitational pull. This bubble is understood to have rapidly inflated immediately after its generation, expanding and cooling over the next ten or so billion years. When temperatures declined, more languid reactions could occur, such as those in a chemical soup that pulled together the amino acid constituents of biological life. Four billion years later, descendents of those same amino acids – progeny of elements pounded together in the furnace of stars, coalescences of matter and energy – would be seen eating breakfast cereals on this very morning.

sulcus170As if observing our lives to be the product of these events were not enough, description of this fourteen billion year evolution should offer some sense of calmness in this life with so many foibles. So my experiment does not turn out as I’d hoped; is the cosmos so simple that it should always bend itself to my inquiry? Human achievement is directly related to human ability, and as long as I work to hone my skill in this profession, human understanding will be advanced. So I spill wine at a formal; humanity has yet to evolve perfect dexterity. So I catch a flat; nothing made will last forever. Breadth of perspective helps us to find a stable place of comfort when social pressures might have us mistaking what we want to happen for what often happens.

In addition to enabling acceptance of the world as it presents itself to us, observing the known scale of the cosmos should afford us perspective regarding what to do with this life. We know that the real significance of our lives is generally bound to that space just around our passing. Thus we should do everything that we can to cultivate the world around us for the mutual benefit it affords upon cultivator and cultivated.

In a given lifetime, the galaxy will have rotated about 1/6250 of a degree. Dinosaurs roamed the earth the last time our solar system was in the same place in the galaxy. Who knows where we’ll be the next time around? I try not to think about that, since it’s really quite impossible to predict. Similarly, I’ll leave other elements of chance to the winds and focus on doing well those things that are in my power to control. What else can an improbable construct of random quantum processes do?


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