This article first appeared in the Winter Solstice, 2001/2002 issue of the HORIZON 
newsletter of the WCAC. 

The Cosmic Perspective
by Dave Gill

When I taught my Astronomy class earlier this year, I chose a text called “The Cosmic Perspective”.  It is an excellent text, with unusual organization and great illustrations.  But I confess I was attracted by the title.  In my other teaching activities, when I have worked with teachers, I have made a point that I wanted them to gain a sense of cosmic place and perspective.  In the light of the recent events of September 11th and beyond, I think that the cosmic perspective is more important than ever.  And I offer some thoughts on this. The opinions expressed below are my own.  If you happen to disagree with them, I mean no offense – another lesson of the events is that reasonable people can disagree reasonably.

On Sept. 11th, I happened to be home in the morning while my HVAC system was being serviced. I flipped on the TV just a few minutes after the first Tower was attacked, and saw the second one hit.  We all remember that day – confusion, the thirst for news and facts.  As darkness fell, we felt compelled to shut off the TV. Robin and I went out onto the deck, and watched the stars come out.  Luckily it was clear that night.  We had a “universe moment”.  We looked around the sky – the absence of aircraft was eerie.  I tried to enjoy the sensory aspect of the universe – the stars, the Milky Way, ruddy Mars.  I tried to invoke my knowledge of the sky to help attain a cosmic perspective.  I thought of the solar system scale I had set up and walked many times.  I thought of the distance to Alpha Centauri in that model.  I looked at Vega and Deneb – not too different in their appearance, but much different in absolute brightness.  I tried to pull the faint glow of the Milky Way from the noise of light pollution in my suburban sky.  We talked, Robin and I, but I don’t remember what about.  But somehow, the cosmic perspective – our universe moments – were comforting.  Somehow, the overwhelming events of the day were somehow tempered by the application of a cosmic scale on human affairs. We took universe moments for the next couple evenings.

A couple days later the news was saturated with stories of who the terrorists were and where they came from. We heard of morons in this country taking out their anger on people in this country who – at least sort of – met their criteria of terrorists. This greatly saddened me.  I work with several new friends who are Arab or Islamic in background.  They are great people, and it angered me to think that people could take out their preconceived hatred on folks like this.  I needed another Cosmic Perspective.  I went down to the basement and found one of those old color calendars that I’ve been saving because they were too pretty to throw away.  I found a page with the famous photograph of the Earth rising over the moon, as taken from Apollo.  The tiny, beautiful, blue Earth  that contains everyone we ever knew or will ever know - that fragile little world.  I took that picture down to work and pinned it on my cubicle wall.  It is my way of taking a universe moment when I look up from my keyboard.  When I hear about the continued conflicts in the Middle East, I think about that beautiful blue Earth, rising over the barren lunar landscape.  I think about how little really separates us from each other, compared to the rest of the universe.

It is the pursuit of knowledge through science that has enabled us to understand the universe and be on such intimate terms with her.  Without the scientific endeavor, we would never have been able to understand the depth and breadth of the universe around us, its violent beginning, its ancient history, and where we came from.  Scientific cosmology has replaced ancient mystical cosmologies in revealing a true cosmic perspective. 

Many of those who cling those ancient cosmologies are critical of science as demeaning the world, and unleashing all kinds of evil on the world.  I have often contemplated this question, and have always felt that science itself is amoral, and neither good nor evil.  It is what those in power do with that knowledge that is good or evil.  But I have struggled with the question.  You may have read some of my other thoughts about the questions of religion versus science.  But in the wake of September 11th, my thoughts are clarifying. 

My attention was drawn back to something I saw on television, probably a quarter century ago.  It was in that wonderful television series. “The Ascent of Man” by the historian of science, Jacob Bronowski.  He stood in the ashes of Auschwitz as he said (underline emphasis is mine):

There are two parts to the human dilemma.  One is the belief that the end justifies the means.  That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine.  The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma that closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts – obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts.

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers.  That is false, tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.

I owe it to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.

(The Ascent of Man, pg. 374-5)

This is how men behave when they believe they have absolute knowledge… I see Auschwitz, I see the collapse of the Towers, and I see Jerry Falwell spewing intolerance and hatred – all in the name of some supposed ultimate, absolute revealed truth.

The last decade of the 20th century brought with it a certain sense of optimism – the fall of the Soviet bloc, better cooperation among nations, and economic good times in this country.  As the new millennium dawned a year ago, we felt that maybe we had crossed some barrier.  Maybe humanity was ready to go to the next level.  But this year has been a sobering reminder that we still have far to go.  We could look at the horrors of Nazi Germany and comfort ourselves that we had come a long way.  But we need only have looked to the Balkans, or southern Africa, or the 700 Club to see that ethnic and religious hatred are still with us.  Maybe September 11th was the ultimate reminder that this is how men behave when they believe they have absolute knowledge.

In my appreciation of the night sky, and the scientific study that it has inspired, I have tried to develop a more cosmic perspective.  I hope that those of you who read this also find some comfort in looking beyond the day-to-day problems here. I have always hoped that the appreciation of the cosmic perspective by large segments of humanity would help bring about some fundamental change in us.  It was said at the time of Apollo 8, at the end of that terrible year of 1968, that the “Earthrise” picture was one that helped change history.  I think we need that again. We need to find a way to remember that tiny, fragile blue world – and all that ties us together rather than all that separates us. We need to touch one another.

Go outside and take a universe moment.  Think about the universe.  Think about our place in it.  Work on your cosmic perspective.

Peace and love in the New Year,
Dave

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