Before arriving at college, I couldn’t even entertain the thought of reading for pleasure. Throughout my years of schooling, reading was always assigned, and it felt like an absolute chore to learn about seemingly negligible topics--like astrophysics, for example. To add to the agony, I was usually required to craft some variation of a templated, soulless essay about what I learned.
Lo and behold, I find myself writing — entirely on my own accord — in response to Astrophysics for People In A Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before you put down the paper, no — this is not a piece meant to bore you with the facts and figures about the universe. In fact, to be completely honest, the most impactful lessons I drew from the book don’t pertain to the technicalities of science whatsoever. What I did gain though, was a more deep-seated understanding of mankind’s place within the context of the cosmos.
Needless to say, learning more about the world beyond Earth has profoundly impacted my way of perceiving life on Earth itself. Take for instance the actuality that the universe, since its conception, has existed for almost 14 billion years. For reference, counting aloud to just 1 billion would require three entire lifetimes. Evidently, the constantly expanding universe has been around for quite some time now. More importantly however, it reminds us that our 80 or so years on Earth are relatively instantaneous in the greater framework of time.
Quick disclaimer: the highlighting of these realities aren’t meant to send you into a nosedive of anxiety, or prompt you to urgently begin blueprinting life’s journey. Rather, the message is quite the contrary. If indeed your life is veering onto an unfavorable course, be courageous, take control and defy the confines of your unhappiness; there simply isn’t enough time to settle for anything less than what you deem to be fulfilling and worthwhile.
Studying the cosmos also reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, despite what we may believe. In fact, only centuries ago, even the most enlightened scientists postulated that the sun orbited our Earth, before that somewhat conceited theory was debunked in the 16th century--which by relative terms, really isn’t that long ago.
Prior to that groundbreaking discovery, people’s worldview was even narrower. Throughout the early stages of human history, our horizons were bound by colossal bodies of water, before the discovery of other continents. When humans finally sailed all seven seas, they looked towards the sky, and discovered a host of other planets; they discovered our solar system.
Surely that’s as big as it gets, right? Wrong. With the advancement of telescopic technology and space exploration, similar solar systems just like ours were exposed. Thus began claims about our galaxy, the Milky Way. Scientific inquiry and discovery persevered, and soon hundreds of millions of subsequent galaxies were identified to comprise the universe. Given this pattern of logic, wouldn’t it be unnecessarily naive to assume that there is only one universe?
Without delving into multiverse theory, I’ll cut straight to the chase. We are so tremendously small in the grand scheme of things. Our quarrels in the workplace or struggles with conformity are even more miniscule. Point being, in the greater context of the cosmos, we are not as important as we think we are; our entire planet is a metaphorical speck of dust in the room that is the universe.
Some may find this concept to be rather dark or lonesome, but I actually find it to be quite humbling. Our understanding of universal scale should remind us to set aside the aspects of life that are insignificant, and focus on those that are truly meaningful.
At this point, it’s safe to presume I’m no astrophysicist, but the reality is that you don’t need to grasp the formalities of the science to extract valuable lessons from the cosmos. Our time and scale of existence in this world are decidedly limited, which begs the question, what do we do with our limited time on Earth?
Different perspectives warrant different answers, but what is perhaps the most reasonable, attainable and responsible goal is to leave the Earth in a better state than
which we inherited it. In the meantime, how do we decide to live our inherently finite lives in an infinite universe? To my best knowledge, living with purpose, meaning and happiness, above all else, is what we owe to ourselves. In spite of how small we may be, our place in the universe is genuinely extraordinary, and should be cherished as so.