Our Universe Inspires Modesty, Curiosity and Calm
Recognizing our humbling cosmic circumstances might be shared by others should motivate a search for extraterrestrial equipment near Earth.
THE MAIN LESSON I LEARNED from practicing astronomy for several decades is that the Universe inspires modesty, curiosity and calm. Given the huge scale of the cosmos and our unprivileged place within it, our circumstances bear little significance in the overall scheme of things.
The most meaningful pursuit is to scientifically understand the details of the cosmic circumstances that led to our existence.
The cosmic stage is not centered on Earth, nor is the cosmic play about us. We arrived late, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, and we live for a brief moment in cosmic history on the surface of a typical habitable planet. There is nothing around us to suggest a sense of privilege.
We often ignore our unprivileged cosmic circumstances by celebrating minor triumphs in our immediate neighborhood. But even with prestigious accolades, the most decorated humans cannot escape being reminded of their insignificance by the notion of their unavoidable death. In ancient Rome, a slave held a laurel crown, during Roman Triumphs, over the head of the leader, standing at his back and continuously whispering in his ears “Memento Mori” (“remember you are mortal”) to prevent the honored leader from losing a sense of proportion in the excesses of the celebration.
Our primeval state before we are born and the terminal state brought up by our death are both peaceful and calm. Unlike the transient in-between phase of our tumultuous life, these states do not ask for anything from anyone. They exist on their own in harmony with the rest of the cosmos. In contrast, throughout life we pursue things that we wish to possess, which are often beyond our control. Seeking those possessions sways us away from the cosmic state of modesty and calm.
The pursuit of honors makes little sense in the global scheme of things. The cosmos delivers an opposite message — independently of how many “likes” it gets on Twitter. Understanding the Universe out of curiosity and modesty brings calm.
One way to soften the blow of the guillotine of aging is to board a spaceship that accelerates close to the speed of light and benefits from time dilation, as expected based on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. A steady rocket acceleration at 1g or 9.81 meters (32.2 feet) per square second — the Earth’s gravity to which our body is used — would bring us close to the speed of light in just one year. Continuing this rocket acceleration for several decades would allow us to cross the entire Universe during our lifetime, thanks to the slower advance of time on the spacecraft. Of course, the required rocket fuel cannot be realized with our existing technologies.
Instead, we could launch technological equipment into interstellar space that would outlast our transient existence. These technological monuments could survive for billions of years and signal that we existed. Extraterrestrials who share our cosmic circumstances might develop empathy for us after finding them.
If these other civilizations reached the same sober realization long ago, they might have sent their own equipment into space for the same reason; not out of hubris in bragging about their accomplishments or for economic benefits, but just to confess about their humbling circumstances. If we ever encounter their “message in a bottle” near Earth, we might feel empathy for them.
Avi Loeb is the founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos.”
Trail of the Saucers is edited by writer/producer Bryce Zabel and published by Stellar Productions. Zabel co-hosts the popular new podcast Need to Know with Coulthart and Zabel that can be found on all major platforms.