WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? John H Fishwick
We share our planet with about 7 billion other people. They speak many different languages, have different cultures, believe in different things, live in different political systems, belong to different races, and vary in intelligence from the brilliant to the functionally illiterate. Do we have anything in common? Perhaps. I would guess that hundreds of millions of us have looked at the stars and planets and asked themselves the age-old questions: Who am I? Why am I here?, and: What’s the purpose of life? What they are really asking is: What’s the meaning and purpose of my life, because the answer, if it can be found, is subjective and is different for each of us.
We may never get a satisfactory answer, but we can get at least a part of the way to a solution by learning a little bit about Astronomy, Geology, and Evolution. This knowledge will help us in becoming aware of our cosmic origins, the planet on which we were born, and our far distant ancestors, single-celled marine organisms. This would take us back to our 185,000,000-greats-grandfather, some 417 million years ago.
There may well be many universes, perhaps an infinite number, but ours is the only one we know, and possibly the only one we will ever know. Our cosmic home was created by a cataclysmic explosion of a tiny unit of energy, of infinite temperature and pressure, about 14 billion years ago, roughly twice in billions the number of us currently living. A rapid expansion produced all of the known matter that we can see and measure; all the constellations, stars, and planets. Our home, planet Earth, was born from the condensation of a cloud of gas and dust orbiting the proto-star we now call the Sun. This happened about 5 billion years ago. Shortly after the Earth formed and had partly cooled down, it was struck by an object about the size of Mars, resulting in a piece being knocked off and creating our Moon. Our distant ancestors must have looked at the Moon with wonder and awe and, not knowing anything about science or astronomy, believed it was the work of some magical deity. What else could be the cause?
So, when did we, homo- sapiens, make an appearance? When did we become bipedal and first walk on the Earth? To put all of this into perspective, let’s go back to Carl Sagan’s creation of a “Cosmic Year”.
The creation of our universe, the so-called Big Bang, happened on January 1st of this cosmic year and the present day is December 31st. The Earth did not form from cosmic dust until September 14th of the cosmic year, the first human creatures on December 30th, and the first true humans on December 31st at 10.30 pm. By ‘true humans’, we mean that, if we shaved them and gave them a suit, they would not be unduly stared at on the New York subway. We are really the latecomers on this planet of ours. All the people who live today, and those who have ever lived, have only existed in the last few seconds of the last minute of the last day of the cosmic year.
After a nerve-racking few billion years, in which the very existence of life was severely threatened with extinction by volcanoes and asteroids, our ancestors came down from the trees and walked upright on the Serengeti plains of Africa. This happened when continental drift caused India to bump into Asia and resulted in the formation of the Himalayas, which, in turn, produced monsoons in India and a drought in Africa. The forests in Africa died and the primates had no alternative but to walk on the plains and fend for themselves. This special species, us, developed big brains with which to adapt to changing conditions and to survive. Actually, our DNA differs from that of the Chimpanzee by only 2%. But what a 2%! This small difference enabled us to make a toaster, build the pyramids, and go to the Moon.
Now that we are cognizant of our universe, our place in history, and our origins, we can use that magical period between the time that we rest our heads on a pillow and fall asleep to ponder just what is our reason for being, our purpose in life.
It’s our brain that separates us from other animals. Our intelligence. This is measured by IQ, but that’s not the real measure, not the way to judge our rationality. The real yardstick is being able to think like a scientist, using the scientific method to evaluate claims by developing what has been called a crap filter.
This means becoming a skeptic and questioning everything. When presented with a claim or a statement, we must ask ourselves: Is it plausible? Where’s the evidence?
Many of us begin with beliefs and then look for confirmatory evidence, rejecting information or data that do not support what we already believe. We can do better than that; we must let the evidence be a precursor to the belief. As Sagan so wisely said years ago: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.