The editing phase for Our Cosmic Story is nearly finished! To celebrate this upcoming milestone, I am releasing the introduction to the book here as a blog update. I would love to hear what you think of it. Enjoy!
INTRODUCTION – A BIG PICTURE VIEW
“When scientists are asked what they are working on, their response is seldom ‘Finding the origin of the universe’ or ‘Seeking to cure cancer.’ Usually, they will claim to be tackling a very specific problem – a small piece of the jigsaw that builds up the big picture.” -Martin Rees
It is rare that we get a chance to reflect upon life, to smell the roses or to look at the cosmic picture. Yet it is important to find the time for such reflection when the grand cosmos is on our doorstep. How did life appear on Earth? How did our fantastically complex civilization develop? When will we encounter other civilizations out there, if ever? This book will explore our history and place in the universe, examine why Earth is so hospitable for life and civilization, and consider the likelihood for life to exist on other worlds, some that may be far more different than our own.
The quest to reach beyond the confines of our world is a natural consequence of being a very small part of a grand and dynamic universe. Looking up at the sky instills within us some expectation that we are not alone, and we wonder if there is not something amazing happening out there somewhere. This sense of awe may not be exclusive to Earthlings; for in a galaxy truly far away, there could be creatures with similar musings as they peer towards our corner of the universe. The idea that we share this existence with potential aliens is a recurring theme in this book.
Regardless of the possibility of countless other life forms existing on rocky barges adrift throughout the cosmos, we should still hold the belief that humanity is special. Our world is rare enough that we may appreciate it just as much as if we are in fact alone. Recent studies have shown that, while life’s ingredients are common throughout the universe, the exact quantity and assortment of chemicals and minerals that make up Earth are unlikely to exist elsewhere. This may have significant consequences for life and evolution on another world that’s close in properties, but not quite the same as Earth.
For a close-to-home example, both Mars and Venus can be considered distant cousins of Earth and once thought to be habitable, though you wouldn’t want to book a vacation to either of them anytime soon. While Mars and Venus are rocky bodies with solid cores, Mars today lacks a dense oxygen-rich atmosphere and liquid water on its surface because the planet is simply too small. Venus is nearly the same size as Earth, but is far too close to our scorching sun. There are many other variables of habitability to consider as well, many of which we will explore in upcoming chapters. The physical makeup of the Earth and how it compares to other planets in the solar system is an important starting point for understanding where we may find life elsewhere in the universe.
Even though we may currently be well off on Earth, humanity should make every effort to voyage into space, if only for the practical reason that Earth will not support life forever. We may one day need to flee Earth in order to preserve the existence of our species from a variety of cosmic and terrestrial extinction events, like asteroid impacts and supervolcanoes. Currently, all of our proverbial eggs are dangerously in one basket. While the lack of evidence of life on other worlds may suggest at first that the endeavor to colonize space is futile, this is a dangerous assumption we just cannot afford to make.
The act of colonizing space will of course come at initially great cost, but in the long run it may pay off in ways we cannot even imagine. Many great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Charles Darwin risked their lives and boldly faced peril to sail across vast oceans in the name of science and discovery. Diseases and other formidable barriers attempted to stop them from making progress, but they pushed on in the hope that a better future lay ahead. These great explorers, and many great thinkers throughout history, have helped to lay the foundation of our civilization as it stands today.
Whatever our future may hold, let us not forget where we came from or fail to cherish this home base. Protecting the Earth for as long as possible may be important for facilitating our ability to leave it someday – and perhaps in our need to return to it, should space be more unforgiving than we had realized. The Earth is not a place that we can spoil with the assumption that a better one will eventually be found. Assuming in advance that our existence in the cosmos is assured will be the ultimate undoing of our way of life. Many of Earth’s past civilizations made this arrogant assumption about their destinies, and it resulted in their swift demise.
In order to begin to understand how we achieved all that we have so far, and further our chances of carrying our knowledge into space, there is one thing that must always be with us: a sense of hope and drive to improve the whole of civilization, beyond just our own lives. The motivation to pass down prosperity to future generations has the power to be a catalyst for expanding into a spacefaring civilization that can counter the constant threats against our one world. While great things will still be accomplished if we stay grounded to the Earth, it will be tragic if humanity one day forgets that we once long ago nearly made it to the stars, but did not.
I hope that this book heightens your sense of wonder about our tiny but special place in the cosmos, as well as fires your imagination and intensifies your intrigue in exploring the potential for other worlds where human civilization may one day call home.
– Mathew Anderson, Our Cosmic Story