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Tag Archives: biology

Are We Alone?

“Is it all just for us, or do we get to share it with anyone?”

~ Paul Sutter (Astrophysicist on “How The Universe Works”)


Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is around 100,000 light years in diameter. That’s roughly 587,900,000,000,000,000 miles or 946,100,000,000,000,000 kilometers across. Those are in the quadrillions, which translates loosely into a “shitload.” The fastest man-made object—according to my research on the Intertubes—was a bit of a toss-up between NASA’s Helios 2 and their Juno spacecraft; that is until the Parker Solar Probe was launched. When it reaches its closest to the sun (in a few years) it will be traveling at approximately 430,000 MPH! That’s screaming. However, even at that speed it would take nearly 1,560 years to cross the entire galaxy.

Current estimates suggest there may be as many as 200,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists suggest our galaxy alone contains up to 200,000,000,000 stars. That’s an awful lot of stuff, eh?

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

Yet, in all of this, we have not been able to answer the most fundamental question we have about the universe . . . Are we alone? Is there life out there we just haven’t discovered? I like how astrophysicist Paul Sutter looks at it (see the quote from him, above, that I started this post off with.) I find it difficult to believe, now that we understand much of the physics and chemistry of the Universe, that life hasn’t (or won’t) evolve in places other than this one nondescript star system we call home.

Another quote I love is one I’m going to paraphrase, as the original quote, from Edward Robert Harrison, doesn’t quite provide the essence of what I’m trying to get across. His quote is: “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people.” It almost says it all, but I think “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, begins to wonder where it came from . . . and where it’s going,” is a bit more on point.

If you are unfamiliar with, or new to, the field of cosmology you might not know what this means. Essentially, it’s refining what is the generally accepted understanding of how the Universe has evolved from nothing but sub-atomic particles to Hydrogen and, through the process of star formation (and spectacular stellar deaths via supernovae) the heavier elements have been formed . . . many of which are the building blocks of life, and us. We’re the descendants of the primal Hydrogen that made up the early universe and its first generation of stars.

To me, the concept of evolution—both of the universe itself and of life on Earth (perhaps elsewhere)—is far more incredible and truly beautiful than any origin story of any religion I’ve encountered . . . and I’ve encountered a fair number of them. Imagining the evolutionary process, which has played out over billions and billions (h/t Carl Sagan) of years is—for me—a challenging flight of fancy and an enlightening exercise in the dialectic, or zen, or yin-yang of life in this universe.

I hope one day we’ll find out we’re not alone. Perhaps that will give us the humility we need to get along with one another on this little blue dot we call home.

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The Vagus Nerve and Meditation

Brainstem

An image of a human brain stem illuminated with fluorescent proteins.

I don’t think I use this blog enough to share info like I do on Facebook. As I think about it, though, it seems the things I post here have a much longer shelf life than those I share on FB. Also, my original intent for this blog was to address issues of seeing systems, particularly emphasizing how infrequently — and incompletely — we do so. The piece from Business Insider I’m going to link to here was shared with me by Jon Husband who, in my mind, is inextricably linked to systems concepts via his pioneering work with what he has labeled Wirearchy.

The article concludes with the researchers, Kevin Tracey and Paul-Peter Tak, recognizing how science and, particularly, medicine have approached understanding of the human body as an effort to understand each organ in isolation, and as separate entities. They now realize the systemic nature of the body, and argue for an understanding that is more holistic and that recognizes how everything is connected.

I also found myself thinking about the progress of our understanding and how it shows just how indifferent nature, biology, and evolution are to anything resembling “fairness” or “justice”. Those are human concepts, creations that make sense to us, but have no place in how or why things happen in natural systems. Evolution is interested in what works and a level of adaptability that allows for constant change in survival strategies. Everything else is merely part of the side-show.

What really struck me was the thought of all the people who have existed before us and how much discomfort, pain, and agony have been suffered in the past, prior to our gaining the various understandings we have come to embrace over the last few hundred years of our existence as a species. The “breakthrough” discussed in this article seems somewhat revolutionary and serves to point out how valuable the ability to see systems really is at improving our lives.

Here’s the link. Check it out. Shouldn’t take more than five minutes to read.


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