Chris requested inspirational quotes or stories, and stuff about science and nature. This reminded me of the Scales of the Universe walk inside the planetarium at one of my favorite museums, the American Museum of Natural History. The Scales of the Universe is basically a walk around that huge sphere you see in the photo above, called the Hayden sphere (which houses the Space Theater, which is so friggin’ cool…like, if you can’t go into space yourself, this is the next best thing). Anyway, there are stations set up around the sphere that help you compare how big or small things are relative to each other. For example, in the picture above, if the Hayden sphere represents our sun, then off to the right, you can see how big Jupiter, and behind it Saturn, are. Below Jupiter, in the lower right-hand corner, you can see three much smaller spheres clustered together in a row. I think the one in the middle is how big Earth would be if the Hayden sphere were the sun. Do you see that? How small Earth is compared to the sun? Anyway, every time I visit this museum, I go on this walk around the sphere because it never fails to amaze me, to see how small we are compared to the universe, and how big we are compared to atoms. It’s mind-boggling.
So Chris’ request reminded me of this walk, which then reminded of something Richard Dawkins wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth…The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.
We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.
Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world…The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.
But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water…here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travelers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.
As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.
The original passage is here.
I know some people think that science strips away the magic of our experience. But I don’t see it that way at all. For me at least, science opens my eyes and sharpens my focus, so that I can see – really SEE – all of the beauty and magic in this life.