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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Sun May 18, 2014
Unruly Children Of Earth: Grow Up
With Mother's Day just in the rearview mirror and Father's Day just around the corner, I can think of nothing more appropriate than spending a few moments connecting our lives with our collective progenitors.
As with our flesh-and-blood parents, we wouldn't be here without them. This is no la-la-land-new-agey thing; it's solid science.
We don't think often enough of this, but we are all sons and daughters of planet Earth, a product of its very specific history and of its connection with the cosmos. And we are an unruly and disrespectful bunch; the kind of kids that only call when they need money or something. No nurturing, no giving back, no love.
Ours is an old story, starting some 13.8-billion years ago, when our collective father, the universe, came into being. (Maybe the cosmos should be a mother as well; it's up to you, dear reader.) Let's leave the details for Father's Day. All we need for now is to know that the first stars appeared some 200 million years after the Big Bang.
Recall that stars are balls of hydrogen, nuclear-fusion furnaces that make hydrogen into helium at a furious pace. That's where it all starts, with hydrogen, the simplest of all chemical elements, becoming all others, all the way to carbon to iron to uranium. Stars do the alchemist trick for real. Without them, the universe would have no chemistry.
We carry in our bodies the products of this cosmic alchemy, forged in stars dead billions of years ago. We are the memory of this distant past, molecular conglomerates that assumed a form complex enough so that stars could remember.
You could even say that people are just an evolution of hydrogen. Well, yes, but hydrogen and stars by themselves don't do it. They need a very, very special womb.
After the first stars, with their short, explosive lives, came galaxies. In a choreography of cosmic proportions, gravity sculpts matter, making it flow here and there, spin around, take different shapes, spirals, elliptical, spherical swarms of millions to hundreds-of-billions of stars. Ours, the Milky Way, is a large spiral, sort of like a hurricane that was flattened into a pancake, a vortex of stars and gases spinning across space. About one star per year is born in our galaxy; our sun and its planets appeared some 4.6-billion years ago.
Earth is a special planet. Just take a look at pictures of other worlds to see why. It's special because it's covered in water and it has an oxygen-rich atmosphere that protects the surface — and life thereon — from the constant hostility of outer space; in particular, from cosmic and solar radiation.
We live in a blue womb, an oasis of life in a cosmos that is — at least as far as we know — lifeless, cold and hostile. If there is life out there, and we all hope there is, it's far away and out of touch.
Earth's climate, warm and stable, allows for life to thrive, to explode into a bewildering diversity. A short stroll through a jungle or a coral reef and we are overcome by the ecological wealth, plants and animals that fight for survival, searching for food, struggling to preserve their genetic imprint from generation to generation. Life uses the present to create the future.
We don't celebrate our collective mother Earth enough. We are too lost in our tribal differences and disputes to look at the core of who we are. We are ungrateful children, the kind we don't want for ourselves, disrespectful of our parents, the kind that once they leave home never look back.
There is a difference, however, and a crucial one. We can't leave our collective home. When we try, we quickly realize how much we need it. (The movie Gravity comes to mind.)
We could find substitute mothers out there, already Earth-like planets or terraformable worlds we could shape in our home-planet's image. (See Barbara King's article for 13.7 last week.) But as it is also true for our flesh-and-blood mothers, even when stepmothers are great (like mine), they are never just like the real one.
So, rather then looking out there in space for solutions to our current mess, we should start working to mend our ways right here.