Season on Origins – Cosmic Origins

The Season on Origins

During these six weeks, we remind ourselves who we are by examining the contexts in which we are – our cosmic, biological, historical, social, communal, and individual contexts. We look at ourselves through different lenses and at different scales. We see the world we inhabit as the natural scientist sees it, as the social scientist sees it, and as we as individuals see it. We find our place everywhere, from the vastness of the universe to our own living rooms.

Week 1 – Cosmic Origins

This week we explore the cosmos and our place in it. Let’s see what perspective it grants us to see ourselves from the vantage point of the universe, what beauty it lends our lives to better understand the workings of that universe. Let’s see how our lives are enriched by what we learn and experience this week.


In the opening chapter of his Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan meditates on the following picture of Earth, taken in 1990 by the Voyager I space probe from about 6 billion kilometers away.

                                                                              Pale_Blue_Dot

 

He writes,

from this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam… It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.)

Sagan’s brilliant prose captures the fundamental duality of our relation to the cosmos. From the perspective of the universe, all of our petty conflicts and even our most cherished dreams seem insignificant. Yet at the same time, we are reminded that this pale blue dot in the vast cosmic dark is a vibrant dot. Almost the entirety of the history of life has taken place there. It is, as Sagan rightly points out, our home.

Join us this week as we seek to appreciate our place in the universe. Join us as we strive to see ourselves as both vastly insignificant and at the same time infinitely precious. Join us in using the suggestions and resources below to celebrate our cosmic origins…


Education:

Watch the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. This 2014 documentary is a follow up to the landmark Cosmos: A Personal Journey, which was hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980. It is visually beautiful and presents the story of the universe in an exciting way.

Visit your local planetarium or science museum. Such places have a wealth of information about the star stuff of which we are made.

Read Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh. This New York Times bestseller explains the origins of the universe and the human story of the Big Bang Theory in clear and engaging prose.

Reflection:

Stargaze. Take some time before it gets too cold to look up and marvel at the beauty which surrounds our planet. Look at a far-off star and imagine being there, looking back at us. Try to get away from the light pollution of cities, if possible. Here is an excellent star chart and a short video on how to use star charts to get you started.

Listen to Astronaut Michael Massimino describe his experience repairing the Hubble Telescope on this. His story is by turns harrowing, touching, and exhilarating, and he tells it incredibly well.

Eat some freeze-dried ice cream or other “astronaut food.” Celebrating our cosmic origins is not just about learning things and feeling connected to the universe. It’s also about having some fun. Remember to celebrate this week.

November 9th is Carl Sagan’s birthday. Celebrate Carl Sagan Day in memory of this Humanist hero.

Action:

If you have a car, volunteer to take someone who doesn’t out away from the light pollution so they can star-gaze too.

Donate to an organization which supports the pursuit of science. Science Buddies is one such charitable organization which works with school children.


Comment below with your ideas for how to observe this week!

3 thoughts on “Season on Origins – Cosmic Origins

  1. I’d like to share a passage that I happened across which reminded me of this week’s theme. You mentioned seeing ourselves as being vastly insignificant but at the same time infinitely precious, and I think this quote, taken from Life of Pi, mirrors that sentiment. The protagonist has been stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for many weeks at this point in the novel:

    “… The sea lay quietly bathed in a shy, light-footed light, a dancing play of black and silver that extended without limits all around me. The volume of things was confounding — the volume of the air above me, the volume of the water around and beneath me. I was half-moved, half-terrified… I noticed — as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next — that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering as what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right. (It was daylight that brought me to my protest: “No! No! No! My suffering does matter. I want to live! I can’t help but mix my life with that of the universe. Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness — how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things? This peephole is all I’ve got!)”

    Confronted with suffering and probable death, this character acutely feels the tension between the vast insignificance of his predicament and his powerful will to live. That is the takeaway from this week for me; I like the idea of confronting my insignificance in a grand setting and still making the choice to regard my life and my decisions as important — after all, they’re all I can affect and all I really know. Extending our gaze to see how insignificant we are in the vast timeline and vast expanse of the cosmos is humbling and lends a very important perspective to our everyday decisions. I feel that somehow, perhaps irrationally, this perspective can promote greater intentionality in our actions and reinforce our wholehearted investment in the minutia of our tiny, tiny lives; the infinitesimally small part of the universe for which we have accountability.

    Like

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