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A human being is part of a whole called by us the universe. – Albert Einstein

Any cloudless night,  when the earth turns once more on its axis,  a vast arc of the galaxy – the Perseus arm- splits the dark skies open in a magnificent cosmic show. If you look towards Sagittarius, wisps of gas and dense stars obscure the heart of our galaxy; an area called Sagittarius A – a dense mega cluster of super-sized stars whizzing around a black hole at millions of kilometres an hour, trying to avoid its hungry event horizon.

Before that light left Sag-A some 26,000 years ago, humans clung precariously to short lives as the ice-age descended upon them. Nomadic and living in small groups, our distant relatives no doubt looked out upon the night skies and wondered at the spectacular wheel of stars above, bright and festooned with blooms and trails of colour in a dark pristine sky; each night the dome of blue retreating to reveal the magnificence of inexplicable heavens.  Gathered around hot-orange fires pushing back the darkness and dangers of the night, those skies would be their companions and the source of myth and magic as they struggled through short difficult existences. The source of legends, and meaning. Their entertainment, their guides, their gods.

That small population succeeded, and the earth wobbled again and commenced a slow warming into a new and more hospitable era. Humans spread all over the globe and almost simultaneously discovered trade, pottery, writing, art,  metallurgy,  agriculture, manufacturing, electricity, technology, towns, cities, metropolises. Now.

Those stars dimmed as cities sprung to light. Our faces turned away from the heavens and to our TV’s and screens. Myths, born in those times, still persistent in ceremony and belief, fragments of a faded and monumental journey of a small band of Homo sapiens leaving Africa to a globe-dominating species conquering the world, and maybe even the cosmos.

The Perseus Arm
The Perseus Arm as seen from your backyard

We are remarkable bipedal animals. A spectacularly successful species of great ape that have gone from scratching out a dismal existence only tens of thousands of years ago, to master tool makers and specialists who, aided by an oversized brain have conquered their environment and peered out across space and time and displaced unknowing and mystery with discovery and insight.

Yet, most of us no longer look up at the skies with primordial wonder.

If a small and tenuous population of protohumans had not survived a hundred slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and potential extinction) on the savannas of Africa, then Homo sapiens would never have emerged to spread throughout the globe- Stephen Jay Gould

Our generation is at a crossroad of destruction or immortality. We’ve unpacked our own organism down to microscopic strands of DNA, and beyond that to the atoms that bind together to form chemicals which in turn bond to make compounds; and even deeper to the particles that make atoms, and into the hidden dimensions from whence those ghostly particles arise to give the cosmos its fabric. We’ve stretched human discovery by using imagination to defy our own limitations of thinking and resist our own necessary but primitive urges. We’ve developed finer and finer tools and found rules- codes of the universe- that work to help us decipher how the cosmos we find ourselves in came to be and how it works.

Now we can look out into the heavens- with telescopes that mimic a billion human eyes-  far across the universe to its visible edges and detect the origins of stars, energy, particles and matter. We understand that those night skies, companions to our forebears, are not the mansion of some god, but the place from which we call came in some unimaginably deep distant past and through a zillion seemingly improbable events.

Yet humans are in a perpetual conflict. Ascendency or survival. Conflicted by those primitive instincts that both works for and against us and social dynamics that helped shape a global community yet are also the antecedents of interminable conflicts, all wrapped in a mind that fears its own mortality as it sees both the future and the past.

We evolved to survive, but to live forever as a species we must overcome the limits of our biology and its attendant sympathies and antipathies to ensure humans aren’t just another one of a million or more animals that have come and gone on this planet.

Right now we are on the cusp of a yet another revolution born of quantum mechanics and computing, medical science, and many other disciplines all converging on discovery that would make the industrial and technological revolutions look stone-age to generations in the not-too-distant in our future. Those advancements are a success of the scientific method which relies on us defying our human nature to find verifiable truths.

But we also face existential threats from our own success and our hunger for energy, food, stuff and better and better lives. We also stare down the constant threat that our hard-won insights born out of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could be turned back as a result of those very successes and the comfort that many find themselves in, which leads to a complacency of thinking and the resurgence of primitive ideas that no longer serve humanity.

Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Steven Pinker

We’re social animals, on one capable of brilliance. On the other tremendously stupid and prone to all sorts of cognitive errors. Many won’t kill us right away, but a lot could lead to our eventual demise personally and as a species.

The revolution that started only a few centuries ago and is accelerating right now can lead us to an immortality. If not in body, in knowledge and spirit. The key to getting there is elevating our thinking- exercising our cerebrum-  and rising above our own base instincts and illusions to see the cosmos for what it really is.  To discover not just our mortal place in it, but how we have connected it, inextricably and inevitably and, yes, eternally.

It’s a form of enlightenment. It doesn’t involve a guru or a mountain. It simply means using this life, our moment in the sun, to wake up to everything we have discovered as the predominant organism on earth and to push the boundary on what we can be as humans, using this amazing tool of cultivated thought, so we can defy the odds and ensure the immortality – at-least – of our knowledge and understandings.

Our consciousness is a product of the universe and the laws that govern it, therefore in a way, it is the universe waking up to its own magnificence.  The birth perhaps, of a cosmic cerebrum.

Our insights and achievements as a member of the great ape family that walked out of Africa only two hundred thousand years ago are magnificent. Our space probes will continue through our galaxy tens of thousands of years from now, whether we are here or not – speeding towards that galactic centre.

A testament that the universe led to a mind that was not only able to see itself but also understand how it came to be. Now, that is remarkable. And maybe lends magic and meaning to our very existence.

 

Technology has advanced more in the last thirty years than in the previous two thousand. The exponential increase in advancement will only continue. (circa 1930)  Niels Bohr

 

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