Time for a cosmic perspective

Here’s one way of looking at our solar system and our place in it: If the vast span of time between the two events that bookend the lifecycle of our solar system — that is, from its coalescence in a cosmic cloud to its destruction in the sun’s final flameout — were telescoped into a single year, all of recorded history would be represented by less than a minute in early June. The entire 20th century would flash by in less than a third of a second.

This is the way that Martin Rees depicts our tiny slice of cosmic time in his ominously titled book “Our Final Hour.” Rees means to provide perspective: Our place in time is as minuscule as the infinitely tiny spatial stake we claim out of an unimaginably vast universe.

In the 21st century, it’s still possible to imagine that Earth is the center of the universe. And it’s possible to believe that Western civilization or the United States or, in my case, Texas, represents the central expression of civilization. Contrary opinions don’t go over well, as Galileo discovered.

In fact, the chief objection that many people have to Darwinism probably springs from philosophy more than from science. It’s not easy to abandon a conception of mankind as the finest handiwork of a benevolent Supreme Being and to view ourselves instead merely as very intelligent beasts with hazy, haphazard origins and an erratic lineage of more or less random evolutionary fits and starts.

This is hard to take, and some are fighting back. Ben Stein’s new movie, “Expelled,” explores, in the tradition of Michael Moore, the supposed battle between the Darwinists and the proponents of intelligent design, who, according to the narrative developed in the film, are being shut out of the scientific academy by jack-booted tactics that Stein connects with those used by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The film is amusing, but ridiculously overwrought. It preaches energetically to a choir already inclined to believe that our vast universe must revolve around some purpose that places us at its center.

Let’s hope so. And that desperate choir may be right. I’m an English teacher, not a theologian or scientist or philosopher.

But Rees’ perspective on our tiny world and its comparatively brief flash of existence is hard to put aside. One of the great things about our space program is that it has allowed us to achieve the perspective that comes with sending cameras as far away from Earth as 4 billion miles and then looking back at our own planet. From that distance, against the vast backdrop of the universe, our home looks like what Carl Sagan famously called a “pale, blue dot,” hardly substantial enough to be the center of anything.

But, really, as far as we’re concerned, it’s the center of everything, the only place we know of where life of any sort manages to survive. Up close, life on Earth looks sturdy enough. From 4 billion miles it looks more fragile. Depicted as the briefest of instants on the vast scale of cosmic time, it seems like a miracle that we’re here, at all. And maybe it is.

In “Our Final Hour,” Rees closely examines various threats to civilization and to human life on Earth, some natural and some manmade. If, in his model of cosmic time, the entire 20th century can be represented by less than a third of a second, the next fraction of a second, he says, is “critical.” Humanity is at significant risk from the “misapplication of science,” and human activity embodies a greater threat of catastrophe than any natural hazard.

Unfortunately, we don’t pay enough attention to voices like Rees’. There are many of them, and even if they’re only half-right, the potential for calamity of various kinds is extraordinary. On the scale of Rees’ telescoping of time, the Bush administration is a nanosecond. But even though it has done almost nothing to remedy — or even acknowledge — the challenges we face, it’s unfair to lay all of the blame for our complacency at its doorstep. The Bush administration is only human. And the 21st century will require extraordinary thinking — transcendent, visionary, almost cosmic.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)

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