Googols & Galaxies: The Ever Expanding Scale Of Human Understanding of the Universe


In the past decade, we’ve studied our Solar System’s orbit through the Milky Way to ask whether there may be clues to periodic mass extinctions on our planet. We've launched missions seeking out habitable Alien Earths and the existence of dark energy and gravity waves and have migrated from wondering if there's life on Mars to searching out and studying myriads of exo planets in the Milky Way and infinite galaxies beyond.

Our incredible advances have also underscored own, very human limitations — our eyes, notes Centauri Dreams in a brilliant review of astronomer James Kaler's book, Heaven’s Touch: From Killer Stars to the Seeds of Life, How We Are Connected to the Universe, see wavelengths between 0.00004 and 0.00008 of a centimeter. Kaler calls our visual spectrum “…but one octave on an imaginary electromagnetic piano with a keyboard hundreds of kilometers long.”

In the beginning (hundreds of thousands of years ago) the only thing that mattered to people was them and their friends – and we don't mean "that's all they cared about", we mean "that's all there was."  Other groups were rivals for food and mates.  Ever since then we've been improving – from tentative tribal trade negotiations, to kings, to high kings, to world wars – every step has shown humankind thinking in bigger pictures than before.  The size of the group is only limited by the communications available, and even the horrors of war only occur when expanding groups run into each other – and acknowledge that the outside world actually happens.

Even the most insane and isolationist culture must now admit that there is an entire world out there, if only to try and avoid it (and eventually lose).  In fact, the scale of sentience is now far greater than global: newspapers report on NASA studies of Mars and Europa, radio telescope observations of the edge of the universe, even theoretical approaches to entire other existences (be they before the Big Bang or somewhere sideways to reality)  and non-carbon lifeforms. All this in an organism for whom "my tree" and "not my tree" was the border of existence.

We are far better than ever before, and as awareness of everyone and everything else soaks through the species we can only improve.  Sure, we've still got all the "others" who want to kill people for being differently colored, or those who "don't see the point" in learning about everything out there (when they could be watching American Idol), but it's important to remember – it's always been like this.  For every individual Pleistocene primate fiddling with this "fire" thing, there were thousands just scratching themselves and thinking about where the next sex was coming from. 

But as one of the world's great physicists has said: "We don't really have a clue."

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