Nothing makes me feel small like thinking about the universe does. Never a large individual anyway, thinking how this apartment encompasses me and it is dwarfed by the small town in which I reside, it’s only a matter of moments before I become a mere microscope slide. And that’s before I even reach the level of just our planet. I’m sure Neil Shubin didn’t mean to make me feel bad when he wrote The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he intended it to be a book that makes the reader feel connected to life, past and present, as well as to the stars that long ago spewed out the elements that have made such life possible. This is a big picture book. From the perspective of a paleontologist the very rocks that entomb the fossils live. The stream of particles is unbroken from the Big Bang to our little corner of the Orion Spur.
The great orthodoxies of science, however, require faith. No matter how the math works, it seems impossible to the rational mind the the entire universe could fit inside the space of the following period. Then, for some reason not yet known, bursts out to infinite but expanding size. Shubin brings many concepts together here—the effects of Jupiter on bringing earth into the Goldilocks Zone, the impact light and dark have on our bodies, whence the dinosaurs might’ve gone—and weaves a tether through it all that ends up in the hand of humanity. Evolved beings we are, but evolved from stardust as well as primordial soup. And then there’s the fact that the earth itself, as is inevitable, is slowing down. Days are growing longer yet we don’t get any more done. And we have maybe a billion years left before the sun goes Trump on us.
There is a strange comfort in being connected to all of this. And also a sense of shame as well. We are, as far as the fossil record reveals, the only species to initiate a mass extinction single-handedly. We have this whole planet and we want even more. It comes as no surprise that religious language crops up now and again in a treatment like this. After all, words divested of such concepts can take us only so far. The Universe Within is a book with a universal perspective, placing us squarely somewhere within a context that we simply can’t comprehend. And yet, reading it somehow leaves me feeling small.
Beautiful. Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence. The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods. Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky. For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away. After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis. It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun. Myths were built around it. Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty. She still is.
Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest. Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions. Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days. Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon. The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity. And then there’s Mars. Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be. He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.
I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera. It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see. It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere. Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance. I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making. Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?
The early morning sky has been putting on a beautiful, celestial waltz this week as the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter swing close then part along the ecliptic. On such days it is easy to see how ancient people would have attributed motive and intentionality to the solar system—there’s definitely something going on up there. Then we get the images from the Mars rover Curiosity, showing us ourselves, lost in space. One of the truly iconic photographs from the last century was the earthrise taken from the moon. Until that moment it was difficult to conceive that we really were spinning through space, unattached to any biblical pillars with an affixed firmament above. Now we are looking at ourselves from a distance of some 225 million kilometers, and our troubles have never seemed less significant, our god never smaller. We are the eyes in our own sky—or, more impressive yet—the eyes from some other planet’s skies. I can’t see how this would fail to have religious implications.
Is this real life, or just fantasy?
Religion often involves introspection—looking at oneself from the outside, or from another perspective. Our religious ancestors, who had no way to assess what the planets were with their conceptual framework, generally assumed them to be alive. Some cultures called them gods, others creatures, but their movement in the sky is often lost on modern people who only occasionally glance at the sky, when their smartphone is taking a little too long to download something. How sobering it is to consider that we are one of those bright dots when seen from Martian eyes. (Unfortunately I’ve been unable to confirm the stunning image that’s been circulating on the Internet claiming to be from Curiosity.) Ancient religions, by necessity, are geocentric. The earth is all they knew. Of course, religions have grown increasingly defensive as new realities have been discovered; even the Book of Mormon was written before the planet Neptune was decisively named and claimed. Changing worldviews is never easy.
From NASA’s photo library
Religion is often a coping mechanism to keep us grounded. Many concepts of divinity are celestially based—pointing to some divine realm in the sky. That is the perspective of an earthling. Once in space, what direction is God? We find that our up and down, near and far, are only relative terms. What the means is that increased knowledge forces further reflection on religious beliefs. We can’t stand still and let the universe revolve around us like an obsolete firmament. Religion must engage reality to remain relevant. And right now reality is rolling across the surface of Mars, looking homeward with alien eyes. How small our steeples and cathedrals look from our solar system sibling’s perspective.