The NGC 1309 spiral galaxy.

We can only wonder what hides in the trillions of worlds beyond our own. (NASA / The Hubble Heritage Team)

By Marcelo Gleiser

It is hard to avoid a feeling of confusion when we face our "smallness" in the big scheme of natural things. On the one hand, we sense that we are special beings, superior, capable of so many wonders, of creating beauty, of transforming the world by the painstaking manipulation of brute matter, from the rough stone to the diamond, from the inert dirt to the monument full of meaning, from chemical elements to plastics, airplanes, balls, and bridges. We are craftspeople, somewhat like sophisticated ants, that build their houses slowly, bringing bits from here and there, erecting their fortresses against the uncertainties of the world outside. On the other hand, we see how natural cataclysms destroy our creations in seconds, buildings that collapse, cities that are submersed by rivers or oceans, by ashes and lava, as if they were mere ant houses crushed under the sandals of a naughty child, intent on causing generalized panic.

The confusion intensifies even more when we look up and see the darkness of the night sky or the vague blue of the day, both apparently extending all the way to infinity, a house without walls or roof, without a well-defined border. And if we think that each star is like a sun, many of them surrounded by its own court of planets, it's hard to avoid the question of our cosmic purpose, if we are here for some reason, if there are other thinking beings out there--similar or quite different from us--but that, for being able to think, also feel the same restlessness, searching for meaning in a world that shows only indifference.

What we have learned from our cosmic neighbors, the other planets and moons of the solar system, doesn't inspire much warmth. We see worlds that are beautiful but hostile to life, either bubbling with heat or frigid, covered with inert rocks or with molecules that seem to trace a road that was somehow interrupted midway, as if it forgot where it was going. Only here on Earth the road forged ahead, and amazing forms and exuberant beings emerged as compromises between environmental constraints and the chemistry of life.

If we keep on going outwards, we see our galaxy, home to some 300 billion stars, a number not too different from the number of neurons in our brains. The "smallness"" becomes even more acute when we think that Earth, and even the whole of the solar system, is nothing but a point in this brilliant spiral that extends for 100 thousand light-years into space. But if what we see here in our solar system is any indication, we can only wonder what hides in the trillions of worlds out there. I think of a beach, like Rio's Copacabana beach with its 3 mile-long sandy shore, and imagine that each grain of sand is a world of its own.

When facing the universe, man is nothing. When facing the universe, man is everything. Herein is the paradox of our existence, to be spiritual creatures in a world that doesn't care about deep questions, a world that simply follows its course, which we try to decipher with our science and, in different ways, with our art.

Maybe this paradox doesn't have a resolution. Perhaps it's best this way. For it is from this restlessness that we create meaning, that we create knowledge and learn how to deal with the world and with ourselves. If we answer a question, we should be ready to ask another. If we feel lost in the vastness of space, or if we feel the weight of being the only creatures that ask how and why (at least that we know of), we should also celebrate our existence, rare and precious. From what we can tell, we are how the Universe thinks about itself. And that's not at all that bad.

categories: Science and Culture

12:30 - January 27, 2010