This post was first published at Scientopia’s Guest Blogge.
In what will probably be my last post here at Scientopia, I’d like to take things in a slightly different direction and wear my heart on my sleeve for a change. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past writing as best as I can about the wonders of our universe, life’s fleeting existence on this planet as well as the possibility that billions of other life-bearing worlds may exist out in the cosmos. As you can imagine, comprehension of space and time on this enormous scale is initially quite discomforting. As organisms evolved to deal with relatively small areas of grassland and savannah, and with medically extended lifespans of only 70 years or so, we lack the innate ability to visualise and properly grasp the true magnitude of the distances and time-spans associated with the study of astronomy and extra solar planets. Consider, for example, the fact that there are estimated to be 9 sextillion (9 x 1021) stars in the observable universe, most with the potential to harbour one or more planets. That’s 9 with 21 zeroes. It is impossible to genuinely appreciate the enormity of this number; we lack the relevant mental computational ability and it can be quite psychologically distressing to attempt to do so.
Any rudimentary perspective that I have managed to gleam from these humble posturings and my barely appreciable understanding of this area of science has required that I approach the subject with as much rational objectivity as is possible, and I have always sincerely attempted to do so. This area of science is evolving rapidly and every new discovery of another ‘Super Earth’ or ‘Hot Jupiter’ brings with it a smorgasbord of new puzzles, excitement and hypotheses. However, I am often concerned that immersing myself in space and time on these magnitudes, even at my amateurish level, may eventually erode or distort my limited perspective on my own place in the world. I am very aware of the fact that I am unlikely to ever even properly appreciate my own ignorance, or to begin to understand how little I actually know about the intricate complexity of our journey through space and time.
Carl Sagan once wrote that “…astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.” Whilst I wholeheartedly agree, I also sincerely appreciate and am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to continue to study in this important area of contemporary science and hope that I continue to do so for many years to come. This contrast between the humbling, occasionally distressing appreciation of the futility of our own efforts to survive, persist and understand, and the life-affirming, almost indescribable enthusiasm to learn and understand presents a slight problem. Is it possible, within the context of our enormous, ancient universe to extract meaning from our short, insignificant lives? I would like to dedicate this article, as well as all that have come before and all that will follow after, to my personal solution to this juxtaposition. I’m sure other scientists and philosophers have various other means of dealing with the problem of grey objectivity and its potentially damaging psychological affects; from religion to alcohol, meditation to psychology. But for me, the reason I feel that I can remained focussed and enthusiastic, is because of the unconditional support, love and dedication afforded to me by my wonderful girlfriend and companion, Hannah. Her caring demeanour, warming smile and gentle caress provides me with calming perspective to a degree that I am unaware she appreciates. She is the reason that I wake up with a smile, go to bed happy and dream contentedly about our joint and happy future.
Scientists know a lot about the chemical basis of love, the subtle interplay between chemical messengers and the architecture of our brain that forms the basis of our lust, attraction and attachment, but the psychological expression of love is a powerful emotion. It is for this reason, like the study of the stars, that love is difficult to objectively analyse. I for one, and in a marked departure from my general philosophy, am happy for the effects of love to remain a personal, subjective experience. Love is not a rational emotion, but it is exactly for this reason that it is consoling. Objectivity is important if we want to understand, in any meaningful way, the workings of our planet and the mysteries of the universe. However, we are borne of the dust of stars and shaped by the subjective comprehension of our experiences of this world. The illogical fact that the love of one person is able to mitigate the distress that can be caused by the comprehension of the scale of our universal insignificance provides me with confidence that objective rationality is not always the best lens with which to view our existence. Evolution has provided us with the emotional equipment to abate the negative repercussions of our superlative intelligence, and we should use it as such. I may be a short-lived, tiny organism, one of 6 billion clinging to a tiny planet around one of 9 sextillion stars, but I have the warm and comforting embrace of loving company along the way, and that is enough for me.
Dedicated with love to Hannah, on the anniversary of 5 happy years together. (02/07/2011)