Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Next Copernican Revolution

Imagine sitting on a hillside a few miles outside, Athens, Greece, 500 years ago, in the year 1510. It‘s a beautiful, cool winter’s night, an hour before dawn. Lying back in the tall grass, a light breeze rustling through the olive trees, you can’t help but be awestruck by the starry heavens riven by the ghostly Milky Way. Jupiter is clearly visible overhead, and a crescent moon hangs low over the eastern horizon, closely attended by Venus’ bright beacon. You contemplate the three crystalline, transparent spheres that support this trio of celestial wanderers. Four more spheres bear the remaining cosmic vagabonds: Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and the Sun. These seven hollow spheres are nestled within an outermost orb that hosts the magnificent “fixed stars” now circling languidly overhead. Sitting at the core of it all, unmoving, is Earth, where you now lie embraced by the universe.

From the time of Aristotle and Ptolemy until the 17th Century, this pre-Copernican understanding of the cosmos held sway in Europe. Ptolemy’s universe shared many features with the thousands of indigenous cosmologies that preceded (and followed) it. Topping the list of commonalities was a profound sense of being inside the universe. One of the feelings most closely linked to interiority is intimacy, and the geocentric vision was remarkably intimate—Earth cradled within nested, invisible spheres.

Then along came Nicholas Copernicus and the revolution that still bears his name. Centuries later it’s difficult for us to fathom the staggering vertigo that 17th Century Europeans must have felt as they digested the knowledge that Earth was no longer enveloped by the cosmos. First to be shattered were the innermost seven crystalline spheres of the wanderers; suddenly Earth was a wanderer as well. Eventually, the eighth and outermost sphere bearing the stars was also demolished, exploded into a vastness that continues to defy imagination. Humanity had been ripped from the bosom of the cosmos.

During the 20th Century, the loss of intimacy with the cosmos only deepened. Western civilization was forced to grapple with the reality that our natal solar system sits in the outer reaches of a pinwheel galaxy of billions of stars, many of them circled by planets of their own and, for all we know, life. Our galaxy, in turn, is one of billions, each one home to billions more stars and hosts of planetary systems. An ancient sense of interiority was replaced by isolation and exteriority—Earth drifting alone in the immensity of space . . . nowhere in particular.

The scientific revolution also exacerbated the loss of interiority and intimacy with nature here on Earth, transforming the vibrant lifeforms of our world into dead, unthinking objects—mere machines to be disassembled, studied, and controlled. Lacking a sense of belonging both cosmically and locally, we were rendered homeless, a dangerous state of affairs from which Western civilization has yet to recover. Using metaphors and other linguistic devices, we humans literally construct our sense of reality. We have spoken an unsustainable world into existence, and we’ll continue to live in this world until we learn a different story.

I'M CONVINCED THAT WE now sit on the cusp of another Copernican-style revolution, one with equal potential to trigger a dramatic transformation in our understanding of “reality.” This time, however, the shift in perspective will be in reverse--from exteriority to interiority, from isolation to intimacy. Perhaps ironically, science will again play a key, though not exclusive, role.

In their recent, marvelous book(1), Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams demonstrate how the past century of cosmological investigation has re-established a central place in the universe for humanity. For example, we exist at the cosmic center of size scales, smack dab in the middle between the smallest and the largest things known. And, like all places in the universe, we appear to be at the temporal center of everything; the concentric crystalline spheres of the ancient Greeks have been replaced by concentric spheres of time—the further you look in any direction beyond our native galaxy, the deeper back in time you glimpse.

Yet centrality does not necessarily confer interiority. For the latter, we must look to the Great Story(2), the epic of evolution that spans the history of everything, from the big bang to us. This grand saga, defined with some degree of rigor only in the past few decades, transforms the universe from a colossal expanse of mostly empty space into a dynamic, evolving unity in which we are inextricably enmeshed. Those distant stars that brilliantly adorn the night sky turn out to be our long lost cousins, both of us spawned from the wombs of previous stellar generations. The same story tells us that the myriad lifeforms with which we share this blue-green world are also cousins, all of us descended from single-celled ancestors. And the most recent chapter traces all human cultures to a small band of Africans whose descendents spread around the globe.

Feelings of intimacy are not founded upon physical proximity so much as a sense of connection. Think of the intimacy gap separating two strangers sitting at a restaurant table from a pair of lovers occupying those same seats. Those lovers could be separated by many thousands of miles and still feel intimately connected. Similarly, we have the potential to form a meaningful sense of connection with the nonhuman world, from the red-breasted robin that alights briefly on the windowsill to the fiery crimson eye of the constellation Taurus. These bonds can be forged through a deep, visceral understanding of the ancestry that unites everything into a single unfinished story, a story in which we now play a critical part.

Now imagine lying on a mountaintop in Colorado 100 years from now, in the year 2110. Venus shines brightly through the last wisps of fuchsia clouds as the spinning Earth plunges North America into another bout of darkness. Within minutes the sky is filled with burning pinpoints of light, the fires of distant suns. A familiar sense of wonder rises like a tide. Over in the direction of the archer, Sagittarius—hard to discern amidst the misty band of starlight crossing the sky— is the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the cosmic whirlpool we call home. You contemplate the fact that all life on Earth (and everywhere else) is made from stardust, that everything you can see is part of a single, expanding unity that began its journey 14 billion years ago. You note the simple act of breathing, how it involves exchanging matter with the bounty of living things around you. Feeling your body sink deeper into the Earth, you are transformed into a whirlpool, an evanescent concentration of energy—you and the Milky Way swirling within the same river.

1. Primack, J. R. and N. E. Abrams. 2006. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Riverhead Books, New York, 386 pp.
2. Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York, 305 pp.
(Note: This post was inspired in part by an extraordinary essay from David Abram in Orion Magazine: "The Air Aware"; 2009, vol 28(5): 16-25)



    Not sure if it's the kind of style you enjoy, but there's a rapper by the name of Historian Himself who deals with many of these issues--interconnectivity with the Earth and the Universe at large, etc.. He's also an unbelievable artist working on an image for a paper I'm working on--a detailed watercolor portrait of an underwater (and in part above water) ecosystem.

    Really, really enjoy your posts Scott.

  2. I have to second Bertin's recommendation of the rapper. Though brutal at times, it's great to hear an artist stress our connectedness with nature.

    I try to instill the sense of interconnectedness with people when it comes up in conversation and explain that it's not a way to lessen the human condition to say we're "from monkeys" but that it's glorious. Your essays do a great job summarizing those thoughts.

  3. Tor and CB,

    Thanks for your comments. I checked out Historian Himself online. Not entirely my cup of tea, but I love the message. I'm of the belief that we need artists of all kinds -- musicians, painters, rappers, writers, scupltors, dancers, actors, etc. -- telling this story before it will really take hold in our culture. Thanks for your support of the WOL!


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