A couple of months ago I was given an unusual and sweat-inducing challenge. In just 60 seconds, I had to try to convince an audience of 180 million people to agree with a simple plan for making the world a better place. Such are the gently immodest intellectual ambitions of the BBC World Service on its broadcast feature, “The Forum.”
As a scientist, I felt obliged to spread the rational word, and as an astronomer I felt obliged to come up with something that was, well, cosmic. So I suggested that were I president of the Earth, I would make an understanding of the most basic aspects of our place in the universe a central part of childhood education.
It’s quite extraordinary that most of us can identify a tree or a bicycle, but have to pause to remind ourselves that we live on a sphere hurtling through the universe. My scheme would change all this.
So, for example, instead of learning grammar with boring sentences about cats and dogs, we’d talk about moons, planets, and stars. Kindergarten arithmetic exercises would incorporate the counting of Saturn’s rings or the craters of Mars. Suitably indoctrinated from birth, we’d eventually stop discussing sporting events or the weather and would have much more interesting conversations about newly exploded supernovae and solar flares.
The end result would be a human population that not only recognized its precarious and remarkable place in an incomprehensibly vast universe, but perhaps also acted accordingly, with a little more respect and care for each other and our blue-green world.
Of course, this was all said with tongue-in-cheek—a little humorous provocation to suggest that we should perhaps spend more time looking skyward and a little less time on celebrity flameouts. But what happened next surprised me. I started getting email after email from people who really did take this seriously and wanted to know how they could help make it into reality. It turns out that gaining a cosmic perspective is important to lots of us, and there is much less cynicism about reaching for the stars than one might imagine.
So I find my bluff well and truly called. But perhaps I can do something about it. The beauty of an institution like Columbia is that crazy ideas to change the world can be nurtured without shame, and are even encouraged.
We live during a remarkable period of scientific discovery that is taking us further and deeper into the nature of reality than ever before. We have a plausible and increasingly verified plot for the history of the entire universe: springing as a quantum beast from the instability of nothingness, starting hot and filling itself with matter, cooling, condensing, making stars, planets, and eventually stretching itself out to a frigid and empty future.
We also now understand that the worlds of our solar system are not alone. Hundreds of billions of other planets must litter our galaxy. Even our closest neighbor, the star system of Alpha Centauri, contains at least one other rocky orb, and perhaps more. There truly is a plurality of worlds out there, and there may also be a plurality of the complex phenomenon we call life.
For the past several years, my colleagues and I have been trying to develop some of the new scientific tools and stratagems needed to explore the possibilities for other living things in the cosmos. From telescopes to microscopes, and from astronomy to biology, we’ve been feeling our way through what is, in effect, a new type of science. It’s not so much multidisciplinary as interdisciplinary, where discovery takes place at an interface of ideas.
It’s not easy. As of yet there are no faculty positions for this type of work at Columbia, and science budgets rise and fall erratically. But we’re making progress, and this effort captures the imaginations of researchers and students with shocking intensity, speaking to our most primal instincts of curiosity.
And so it’s a wonderful thing to discover that we’re not the only ones with this obsession. Across the globe, people are eager to take up their cosmic citizenship. Everyday life may be firmly rooted on Earth, with its multitude of tragedies as well as its great promises, but perhaps humanity is ready to start living with its collective mind a little more amongst the stars.
We can help with that. Every new planet we find around a distant star, every new insight to the nature and origin of life here on Earth, and every new intellectual expedition takes us a step further in finding our place in nature’s vastness. What a grand and lucky adventure.
The author is an astronomer and director of astrobiology at Columbia. His latest book, “Gravity’s Engines,” tells the scientific story of black holes and their role in the universe.
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