Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happy Carl Sagan Day!/Space Week 2011 #7 "Back to Basics: The Cosmic Perspective"

Greetings, everyone.

So I've once again let my Space Week series drag on a bit, to the point where we are now at Carl Sagan Day. Given that Carl Sagan had an enormous influence on how I perceive the Universe, and therefore on how I interact with, think about, and envision the future of said Universe, I think it appropriate to revisit on his birthday the basic principles of a worldview I like to call the Cosmic Perspective.

I don't remember exactly when I first heard the name of Carl Sagan, but I suspect it was sometime in the late 80's, staying up to watch some random episode of The Tonight Show on which he appeared. It was probably right around the time of Voyager II's encounter with Neptune. I had always been interested in astronomy, but there were only so many books on the stars and planets at the local library, and for the time being I had moved on to other subjects. It was a little less than two years later that I took a full course in astronomy at Saturn (the school, not the planet) and learned what Carl Sagan was all about. Over the duration of the quarter I got to watch several episodes of the landmark PBS series Cosmos that first aired in 1980. Being less than three years old, I never watched it that first time, but after seeing a few hours of it ten years later I realized he was no mere talking head.

From that point on I began following the latest developments in astronomy and space exploration with fanatic devotion, and it seemed that Carl Sagan had a hand in every discovery. However, it was not until 1994, when I read his Pale Blue Dot that I truly started to understand the depth of his vision. It was he that truly helped me realize the vastness of the Universe, and how all of human thought and experience pales in comparison. At the time I was nearing the end of that long process which resulted in the final jettisoning of my theistic worldview, and in Carl Sagan I found someone who had already thrown off those shackles from his mind and faced reality with unbridled optimism. Thus his example helped me to take that final leap of non-faith and begin my own self-directed journey through the Universe.

For many years I have quietly marked his birthday in my own calendar of observances, but more recently Carl Sagan Day has been promoted more widely among the freethought community, and I happily join the chorus of those who are building a groundswell of greater public recognition for the life and work of this great man. When you are done reading what follows, head on over to the Symphony of Science to check out some awesome music videos featuring Sagan and other prominent scientists. You could also try to make an apple pie from scratch, but if you succeed I would very much like to see your recipe for Universe, which is a necessary prerequisite.

Now about that Cosmic Perspective. This is the term I use to refer to a set of principles that inform how I look at many aspects of the Universe in which we find ourselves. The first five are based on the best evidence we have available about how the Universe developed and the forces that continue to act within it and define what is possible. The last could be considered a matter of opinion, but I have a feeling most people will find it one that a sound mind should hold. They are:

1. The Universe is incomprehensibly huge.

Basically, just think of the biggest thing you can possibly think of. For most of us, it is the Universe, but just in the time it took to think that thought it has gotten bigger. And even were it not in a state of continual and accelerating expansion, it would still be pretty darn big.
2. Humanity occupies no privileged place within it.
We may be unique, but that does not make us special in the sense that anything is watching out for us. As a species, we have to deal with the same laws of physics as everyone else, including the remorseless Second Law of Thermodynamics, which economists have neatly adopted and summarize with the adage "There's no such thing as a free lunch." We may have abilities others lack, but it is up to us to use them in a coordinated manner to promote our continual survival.
3. Our existence is the result of a convergence between a number of random processes, one that may or may not have occured elsewhere.
We live in a pretty quiet part of the galaxy, and our planet is situated in a favorable orbit around the Sun to sustain liquid water on the surface. Our species is the result of billions of years of random mutation combined with natural selection, a process that does not have any predetermined outcome, and if you started with the same set of initial conditions and set the ball rolling again you might not get anything even remotely resembling us. Whether or not those initial conditions were or are present on other planets is still being determined, but their results will not affect the conclusion that at this point we are still at the mercy of forces we cannot control and are only just barely beginning to understand.
4. The continuance of that existance is not guaranteed.
A logical consequence of #'s 2 and 3 is that if we want to stick around as a species, it will have to be through our own hard work. The list of cosmic level events that could snuff us out before we even had a chance to react is long and sobering (read Neil de Grasse Tyson's Death by Black Hole if you want more on this), so we may be doomed regardless, but fooling ourselves by thinking we are invincible or under some special protection is neither a healthy or effective way to deal with this fact.
5. The development and settlement of outer space and other worlds is the best strategy for continued existence.
While some good things could be said for trying to downscale or transform our industrial civilization to a point where it does not put the biosphere in imminent peril, and such efforts definitely need to continued, the old phrase "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" is in operation here. Given the reality of #4, remaining on Earth is not a viable long term survival strategy, since unless we can slow down or stop the Sun's gradual increase in output, the Earth is doomed in the long run no matter what we do. And if we do develop the capacity to affect the Sun's development, it will likely be as a result of continuing expansion into the Solar System and eventually to other stars.
6. All else being equal, existence is preferable to non-existence.
As I said, in the strictest sense this is a matter of opinion, but if you disagree with it there is not a great deal we can talk about.

So there you have it. I am now going to listen to "A Glorious Dawn".