Thursday, February 2, 2012

Taking the Long View

Perhaps some of you noticed a brief article in the paper the other day in which the reporter (this was in the Science Times section of the New York Times) noted, almost in passing, that in about five billion years the sun will turn into what scientists call a “red giant.” This will entail our star becoming seriously bigger and just a bit cooler, but the sun’s specific temperature won’t matter much because the larger concept involves the earth being totally engulfed and burnt up in the expanding radius of the sun as the latter blithely and unselfconsciously evolves into its next stage of being. This will not come as a surprise, however: about a million years prior to that dismal development, a similar fate will already at that point have overtaken Mercury and Venus. The other reason it will not come as a surprise is that there will not be anyone here to be surprised: the earth will at that point have long been far too hot to sustain human, or any sort of animal or vegetable, life. Thus, by then either we will have long since been toast (in both the literal and figurative senses) or else we shall long since have been gone off in our interstellar space-scows to wherever it is in the universe that we shall by then have successfully identified as our most likely place of intergalactic refuge. In either event, no one will be here to witness the cataclysm. Probably, that will be all for the best.

The good news, of course, is that five billion years is a long time from now. The solar system (including the sun itself) is, by way of comparison, estimated by scientists to have formed only about 4.5 billion years ago from a cloud of collapsing hydrogen gas. And, as always, the past is part of the future: when the hydrogen became dense enough and hot enough, and the fusion process began (in this context, fusion is the name of the process whereby hydrogen and helium somehow combined and continue to combine to produce heat and light), this process commenced that will end eventually when the hydrogen is spent. What else? You can’t burn fuel you’ve already burnt! Fortunately, as noted, this will not happen any time soon: the sun itself accounts for 99.8% of the mass of the entire solar system and that mass is a thousand times that of the largest of all the planets, Jupiter. That’s a lot of gas to burn!

It would, obviously, be easy to wave all this away as the very last thing any of us should be concerned about. A century ago, the world was a totally different place: no computers, no jet travel, no moon missions, no television, no cellular communication, etc. So to look not one, but fifty million, centuries into the future seems a little pointless: who can even imagine what the world will be like when our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren are growing up thinking they invented sex in the twenty-third century. (Doesn’t every generation think that?) And, indeed, the article in the Times was indeed written in just that sort of jokey, light-hearted style: the author, C. Clairborne Ray, cited a study published by the Royal Astronomical Society in the U.K. in which it was noted that even if humanity does evolve some sort of scheme to preserve the earth by somehow artificially expanding the radius of our orbit around the sun, there is nevertheless, “no immediate hurry to implement the scheme.” Those Brits are so wry! (Left unnoted was who exactly will be around to implement the scheme even not in a hurry. Perhaps the bedrock assumption always is that there will always be an England.)

I’m not taking any of this personally. (Well, maybe a little bit I am: I paid a fortune for perpetual care for my parents’ graves and now it turns out the planet will be engulfed in flames long before what any reasonable consumer would consider to be a reasonable definition of perpetuity. They must really have seen me coming!) But not taking it personally doesn’t mean not pausing at all to consider the implications of all of this cosmological theorizing.

I suppose I must sound naïve. For most of us, the fact of human mortality—the realization, or rather the acceptance of the realization, that none of us lives forever—is one of the most basic building blocks of the worldview of all thoughtful, non-deluded people. We may act as though it weren’t true. We may even valorize the degree to which we are able successfully to ignore the implications of our mortality, but none of that means we don’t understand that our lifetimes are finite, that we cannot, in fact, rationally expect to live on forever. One of the most meaningful statements on that specific topic was written by the second-greatest of Long Island’s poets, William Cullen Bryant, one of my personal favorite authors. In his greatest poem, written (amazingly) at age seventeen, he finds comfort in numbers: “All that breathe / will share thy destiny…As the long train / Of ages glides away, the sons of men, / The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes / In the full strength of years, matron and maid, / The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man— / Shall one by one be gathered to thy side / By those who in their turn shall follow them.” Yeah, yeah…that part of human mortality I can almost accept. But that the earth itself—the context for all that mortal coming and going—that the planet itself is mortal—that it was born and will one day exist no more—that seems to me somehow exponentially more unsettling. I can face (barely) the thought of lying in the bosom of the earth beneath a granite stone bearing my name, but the thought that the earth and its bosom are in their own way as mortal as myself—that is the idea with which I somehow can’t quite come to terms.

I’m not alone. I noticed the other week, also in the Times, that NASA went to the trouble of removing a reference to the mortality of the sun from a gripping essay—I say that not at all sarcastically, by the way—about the discovery of some sort of cosmic dust encircling a distant star of the variety called “white dwarfs.” A white dwarf is a star that has already passed through its “red giant” phase. The white dwarf in question is about the size of the earth and is all that is left of a star that was once, apparently, the size of our sun: the reporter referred to it, laconically but shockingly, as “a cinder” with no further qualification. A spokesman for the Goddard Space Flight Center, a NASA lab near Washington, D.C., commented that observing this white dwarf was like “seeing the ghost of star that was once a lot like our sun.” And then the spokesman, one Marc Kuchner, went on to say that he cringed when he saw the data “because it probably reflects the grim but very distant future of our own planets and solar system.” That latter part, the part about the grim future of our planet and our solar system, was the part that appeared briefly on a NASA news release only to be edited out before the release was finally actually released to the public. When questioned about the omission, a spokesperson for NASA explained, apparently without irony, that the deletion was intentional and was undertaken specifically because, and I quote, “NASA is not in the habit of frightening the public with doom and gloom scenarios.”

You have to love it. The sun is going to turn into a lifeless, cold cinder. The planet we know as our home will be engulfed in flames and swallowed up into the sun before old Sol finally closes down for good. Whatever humanity will have created in its ten-billion-year run that we don’t somehow figure out how to shlep off to some other planet somewhere will end up as so much space dust. But NASA doesn’t want to frighten the public with glum “scenarios” or with depressing forecasts. Go, NASA! But what if contemplating this particular aspect of things didn’t fill us with dread or with ill ease, but with a sense of purpose, of mission, of pressing urgency in seeking to create a better society? What if knowing that nothing is permanent, that even the earth itself cannot and will not last forever, were to inspire us to strive to create a just world, a world at peace, a world of shared purpose and common, shared endeavor that could feature a version of humanity not riven into countless, mutually antagonistic sub-groups, but united by a sense of shared humanity in the great task of learning how to escape the pull of gravity successfully enough to begin anew in some other place? What if we approached the thought that our time here is finite somewhat in the way that we approach the fact that our own lives are finite not by living lives suffused with self-referential fantasy about our own presumed (but wholly made-up) immortality, but by laboring with all we have in us to leave something better to our children than our parents were able to leave behind for us? What, in short, if the “doom and gloom scenario” from which NASA is so eager to protect us were to be viewed as the greatest single reason for us to abandon our territorialism, our ethnic chauvinism, our petty disputes over issues that in the long-run will be so unimportant almost to be laughably so…and to embrace the kind of universal humanism of which the prophets spoke when they imagined a world united in prayer in a Temple in Jerusalem that would truly serve as a house of prayer for all people?

Maybe I’m asking for a lot. In fact, I am asking for a lot. But I found that short piece in the Times the other day far more inspiring than depressing. I suppose in fifty million centuries things will be seriously different than they are today. But some things don’t change so quickly…and others not at all. Humankind will not, I do not believe, naturally evolve into a finer version of itself. But perhaps the contemplation of the larger picture—and pictures don’t get much larger than the one mentioned en passant in the Times last week—perhaps the contemplation of the ultimate way things are and will end on our planet, perhaps that image (if only people were to take it seriously enough) could inspire us to set aside our differences and see ourselves for what we are: a planet of men and women created in God’s image and blessed with the infinite (if generally untapped) capacity to do good in the world.

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