MAN AND THE UNIVERSE
Strangers in the Cosmos
The questions of the first western philosophers – Thales of Miletus, Anaximander, Empedocles… – involved the Universe: what is the Earth’s shape? Which are the principles, or elements, of things? Why is there the world, things, and not nothingness?
Before the Greek philosophers, the Hindus also speculated about the creation of the universe, and the role of God in it:
«Nobody could ever be able to create the Universe. How could an immaterial being create what’s material? How could God make the world, without raw material?»
But in general, the oldest questions and answers about the Universe, and its nature and the role of man in it, were fundamentally mythical and fanciful. Many peoples in the ancient Mediterranean world saw stars in the moving and shining sky as a sort of transit of the souls of death, and the ancient Egyptians saw a sort of platter copying the Nile and the geography of their earthly world.
These visions were not very different from the version present in Shakespeare’s poetry, when he designates the stars as «night candles», or from Lord Byron’s when he described the Milky Way as a «broad and ample road, whose dust is gold, and pavement stars».
The enchanted and fanciful visions of the Universe began to dry up in the seventeenth century. In 1690, when Christian Huygens speculated about the existence of a great number of populated earths, as beautiful as ours, the subjacent conception had very little to do with the one present in previous poetry and myths. Huygens was deeply influenced by the modern visions of the Universe, as put forward by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.
Feynman, an outstanding contemporary physicist, criticizes the incapacity of today’s poets to write about the strange composition of the Universe, as revealed by science: «Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter as if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?», he asks.
The answer to Feynman’s question is not difficult: the human soul is not positively impressed by the scientific vision of Jupiter and of the Universe. The Universe revealed by science is extremely inhuman. It isn’t easy for poetry to describe it.
Our role in the Universe, according to a scientific view, is purely accidental and gratuitous. «Physics have discovered a Universe of rage, violence and war, with explosions and implosions of stars and planets, collisions of galaxies, and stars that parasitize and devour each other cannibalistically» (Edgar Morin).
Science has revealed that the Universe wasn’t created for us, and that we have no significant place in it, contrary to our ancestral myths and religious considerations. The Universe, when seen through Gamma rays, X rays, infrared, and modern cosmology, has nothing to do with what our eyes spontaneously detect, and what our dreams would like it to be.
In the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal described the existential discomfort caused by the revelations of modern science about the universe. He was astonished and anguished with the first descriptions of an infinite universe, composed of millions of stars and planets, making the Earth and man simple microscopic scraps. From the point of view of a Universe that we can’t help feeling as cruelly empty of the possibilities of life, crushing, and unbelievably big, strange and extensive, his thoughts remain extremely current.
The more recent elements introduced by science about our origins and nature are also far from being comfortable for our dreams. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin revealed to an incredulous humanity that we are descendants of other species, of apes, and, even descended from bacteria. In recent decades astrophysics has revealed that we are also descendants of atoms formed in the interior of the nuclear power stations of the stars, and ejected by them into the interstellar vacuum.
When compared to former mythical or religious visions, and our human dreams, this scientific vision is indeed uncomfortable. But notice the way Blaise Pascal expresses his surprise and fright:
«When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time have been ascribed to me?»
And look at the way scientist Michel Cassé describes our connection to the universe, and the fact that we are literally sons of the stars:
«When we drink a drop of water, we drink the Universe, because a molecule of water, the H2O, gathers in itself the hydrogen – a vestige of the initial explosion, the Big Bang -, and the oxygen, produced in the furnace of the stars and exhaled by them». «When observing the stars, you should see them in other perspective. Take into account what they really are: the mothers of the atoms of which we are constituted, the atoms that constitute the mortal and thinking species that admire the sun as a god, a father or a nuclear station».
And meditate on the way Edgar Morin describes the dynamic of the creation of the elements that compose the Universe:
«Without ceasing stars switch off and explode and planets freeze; without ceasing fragments and dust of dead suns and planets gather, whirling round over themselves to give birth to new galaxies and new suns».
Isn’t there true poetry? Blaise Pascal, Morin, or Cassé may not be poets but when they described the universe and its mechanisms the way they do, they wrote and chanted the poetry that Feynman claimed.
See also: Quotations on Man and the Cosmos