Recently, I read that even thinking about science can make us more ‘moral’, by regulating our thinking to more rational modes. To define ‘moral’ and ‘rational’ needs context, but that can be as slippery as any self-referencing, self-righteous argument we hear from ‘authorities’ on these subjects.
In studying science, one gains a sense of scale of our place in the universe (notwithstanding possible multiverses). It should make our petty part in the great cosmic dust-up seem less than a sneeze, were it not for the fact that that we are made of the dust of stars and would not exist but for several billion years of recycling within the hearts of stars. Maybe that breathtaking idea should give us pause for thought before we recycle ourselves back into the dust.
The beautiful pictures sent back from the International Space Station show our planet and its luminous wafer of atmosphere. This layer is about 10km thick compared to a planet of radius about 6,400 km. Of course, humans, and other surface dwellers, can only survive unaided close to the surface of the planet. Everest is about 9,000 m for comparison. The 10 km of atmosphere is comparable in scale to the skin of an apple to the apple as a whole. And the solid crust of our planet beneath our feet is of a similar order, floating upon the mantle. All of human existence is played out upon – effectively – a surface of a small rocky body orbiting a star in a universe with more stars that our planet has grains of sand. Yet we seem bent on destroying what sustains our very lives, which is neither ‘moral’ nor ‘rational’ in any interpretation.
A geologist friend likened the human time frame in scale to the thickness of the perforations in a roll of toilet paper where the whole roll represents the 4.5 billion years of the planet’s existence. I have not checked the calculation vis a vis loo paper, but anatomically modern humans have been around for about 0.2 million years, which is four orders of magnitude less – a factor of a ten thousandth – of the time since the planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago in a cosmos around 13.8 billion years old.
I have often wondered how many stars died to create enough of the heavier elements needed to make our planet, and us, and how many other habitable planets there are in the vastness of the universe, in space – and time. Science has shown that this one came about by a complex set of circumstances, as far as our understanding of what is an acceptable place to live is restricted to Earth. It could be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the vastness of the cosmos, we don’t have enough information to know exactly how special we really are because we have only just begun to explore it – using our brains, our intellect and our imagination. We don’t yet have the skills to go very far beyond our planet, let alone find an unspoiled new planet to relocate to.
But we are beginning to get a handle on the real estate. At the time of writing, we have detected about two thousand extrasolar planets. Some hundreds are of the order of the mass of Earth, and some smaller percentage in a similar distance as Earth from their parent star. This does not necessarily mean that they are capable of supporting complex life. It is estimated that our galaxy has hundreds of billions of planets, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe. So another earth is bound to be out there somewhere, but not so handy as to make a relocation possible, even when we learn to make a warp drive. But consider how would we feel if a fleet of aliens came here looking for a replacement for their planet.
Earth took a lot of cosmic resources to build, and the circumstances that make it favourable to life are complicated. There are big questions about how life started, but it took around four billion years to get from gloop to human. And maybe it will take much less than that for humans to turn it all back into gloop, but I’m sure it would start over again in a few more billion years. Time is patient. We can be sure that a billion years or so down the line, much of the crust of our planet, and all that humanity ever made will have been re-made via weathering and plate tectonics. Oh, and in four or five billion years, our sun will have run out of hydrogen fuel and will turn into a red giant, which will probably make life on Earth moot. So humans are treading precariously upon the skin of the living apple precariously.
Whatever we do to ourselves, and our planet, we humans may ultimately develop into more complex and even ‘moral and rational’ living entities. But on the other hand we could blinker ourselves to reason and let our evil twin destroy the lot – kit and caboodle. Decisions, decisions. For my money, thinking and reasoning are skills worth cultivating.