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Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

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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Out of The Final Closet?

Atheism and the Earth

Our Real Common Bond is our Life on Earth . . . in This Cosmos.

In October of last year, I posted about a dilemma I was having with the possibility I would, at some time, be asked to give the pre-meeting invocation at one of my Rotary Club’s weekly meetings. I haven’t been asked yet and, even though there are no comments to the post, I have received a couple of emails from others who have dealt with the problem before.

As I said, I haven’t been asked and I’m not in the lineup for at least another month or so. Neither have I bothered to write anything. I will likely wait until it’s absolutely necessary prior to doing so. I need the actual pressure of a deadline sometimes to get things done. I do, however, think about what to say quite frequently, especially when I come across a story that touches on the issues.

Today, a friend shared a link to an Arizona publication that posted a story about a State Legislator – Juan Mendez, of Tempe – who gave a prayer-less “invocation” before a session of the Arizona House of Representatives. The story pointed out, as well, that he quoted Carl Sagan in closing. Here’s a link and, just in case you don’t bother to go there but would like to know a bit more, here’s an excerpt:

“Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads,” Mendez said. “I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.”

He went on to say:

“This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.”

And closed with:

“Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.'”

He said one more thing I think is especially pertinent to what happened yesterday (May 21, 2013) in Arizona. It also reflects how I feel about the importance of “coming out” for those of us who profess no belief in a supreme deity, and it’s something I’ve struggled with for years. It hasn’t shaken the strength of my convictions, but it has been a royal pain in the ass at times.

When I worked on the SSME program at Rocketdyne, I felt it necessary to be very careful about expressing my beliefs for at least a decade. When I first started working there (late 80s) it was practically a shrine to Ronald Reagan, and overtly identifying myself as an atheist I’m pretty sure would have been counter-productive, if not self-destructive :).

As an ordained Minister (in the eyes of the State, a “Church” is a corporation) I have performed somewhere around fifty weddings over the years. All of them have been non-religious, non-sexist ceremonies, using a combination of portions of The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, descriptions of folklore and customs I had learned about, and the occasional poem written especially for the couple. I was pretty close to a lot of the people I performed the ritual for, including my brother and sister-in-law and my sister and brother-in-law. Crafting something especially for them was pretty easy. I usually worried, however, that someone’s parents would be offended though, of course, no one ever was. Come to think of it, Gibran uses the word “God” a couple of times in one of the pieces I used repeatedly.

Here’s the final quote I think is so important, in light of my experiences and those of so many others:

“I hope today marks the beginning of a new era in which Arizona’s non believers can feel as welcome and valued here as believers.”

The part of me that’s remains Jewish wants to say “from his lips to G-d’s ears”, but that would be just silly, right?


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