There is a word in Japanese, Yūgen (幽玄), derived from the study of Japanese aesthetics with no English equivalent, that perhaps comes closest to describing the profound sense of the enormity of the cosmos: to despair and be humbled by the insignificance of the struggle against the indifference of the universe, whilst also appreciating the sad beauty of human suffering. I often find myself grasping for a word to describe this reaction when discussing astrobiology with people, other scientists or members of the public, who find the entire field incredibly depressing; who, at some level, acknowledge the futility of our search for meaning in the distant reaches of space. Some find the emotional burden too great to bear, triggering a minor existential crisis. “It’s better not to know”, they say, “Not to think about it. Besides, [insert reality TV show name here] is on!”
On one hand, who can blame them? It’s not like we’re expecting answers to many of The Questions that astrobiology and astronomy are trying to solve in our lifetimes. Science is a gradual process after all, and one that will last as long as there are still questions to be answered. The relative insignificance of our personal lives, our careers and relationships, cast against the enormity of the cosmos and separated by orders of magnitudes of space and time, so clearly presented, can prove a bit too much. The Astronomical Perspective can be overwhelming, and astronomy, as Carl put it, is a humbling experience. I’d like to adopt yūgen as a general descriptor of these feelings.1
Astrobiology is a scientific discipline practised from deep within in the realms of bounded rationality. These bounds stem from a definite, fundamental and detrimental lack of information about the system, as well as a possible cognitive and technological limitation in processing of the limited information available to us. We definitively lack the resources to arrive at an optimally rational conclusion regarding our place in the universe, the existence of suitably habitable environments elsewhere, and the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, we know we’re close. We suffer a kind of collective Dunning-Kruger effect regarding how little we know, and how little we know about how little we know. We’re approaching that greatest of unknowns, cobbling together a piecemeal scientific narrative as we go, but missing so many parts of the puzzle that it’s not even clear what it is we’re building. Yet, something innate drives us onwards. Some part of us that has always been, as if a distant memory or half-remembered dream, within our genetic luggage and passed on to us from pre-human ancestors.
The size of our brains relative to our body size (also known as the encephalization quotient (EQ)) has, in fact, gotten smaller in recent times, peaking ~30,000 years ago after 2 million years of expansive growth. I’ll leave the anthropologists to argue over why and what this means, but making some crude assumptions about intelligence and EQ we can assume, therefore, that our extremely distant ancestors may have gazed up at the canopy of the night sky and felt that same intangible yearning as we do. At least, there seems to be no cognitive reasons that they couldn’t have done so. Maybe it was even more pronounced by the gulf of knowledge that separates their knowledge of the cosmos from our own? The bright band of the Milky Way stretched out overhead, unobscured by pollution, but hidden by ignorance; an unknowable story waiting for a narrator, one that would not arrive in earnest for thousands of years. In the meantime, complex and anthropomorphic mythologies were borne and woven by the tapestry of human imagination and fuelled by our penchant for storytelling.
Perhaps, that sense of insignificance, that yūgen, was even more heart-wrenching in the very distant past when we were young, when our contemporary achievements in understanding of our place in the greater Story would seem unfathomable, akin to magic. Perhaps, yūgen has been a driving force in our history as long as we have existed? I’m not suggesting an evolutionary driver akin to bipedalism, but perhaps a minor constituent of the human story that contributed an unquantifiable edge to our tale. An ember burning near the edge of the campfire of humanity’s intellectual awakening, smouldering away throughout the ages whilst we built our temples and cities, waged our wars and battles, waiting for the spark of enlightenment to burst into an inferno of curiosity and discovery.
That’s why I’m optimistic about our search. Sure, we may not find any concise answers to the ‘big’ questions in our lifetimes, and we’ll probably always have that sense of yūgen when faced with incomprehensible enormity on galactic and light year-scales, but rather than hiding in the dark, we should embrace the feeling of astronomical despair and turn it into a creative force for discovery! If you don’t like being insignificant, find something that makes you significant. Yūgen will be passed on to the next generation of curious scientists and philosophers, and as it has done in the past, it will drive us on to more profound questions and more mysterious unknowns.
1 If any Japanese speakers are reading this, please let me know if I’m using this word incorrectly – my understanding is that the context is important.