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AN ASTRONOMER'S COSMIC PERSPECTIVE
As an astronomer, I’ve spent many quiet nights at remote mountaintop observatories gathering photons from distant stars and galaxies. The high-altitude skies are dark, and the brilliant stars seem nearby. Yet the light I see left most of these stars well before the advent of human civilizations, while the light from the galaxies left before there were any humans or, for the more distant galaxies, even a planet Earth. In spite of humanity’s seemingly immense problems—terrorists, nuclear explosions, and global warming—we astronomers maintain a cosmic perspective, viewing humanity as a Johnny-come-lately species living on an obscure planet orbiting a ho-hum star—one of billions of stars in a run-of-the-mill spiral galaxy.
My career as an astronomer has been typical in many ways. I was involved with the development of totally automated telescopes, writing a small mountain of research papers and books, teaching, organizing many conferences, and served a stint as President of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Although nominally retired for the past fifteen years, I still teach astronomy courses for Cuesta College and California Polytechnic State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and direct the Orion Observatory located near Santa Margarita Lake. I observe eclipsing binary stars—looking for orbiting extrasolar planets. Cuesta College and Cal Poly students often use the Orion Observatory for their research projects.
Not so typically, however, I have actively applied my astronomer’s cosmic perspective to humanity. How did we come to be? What is our fate? For several decades I spent much of my spare time translating and consolidating main-stream science’s answers to these questions into two easily-read books. Not being an expert in the many areas covered by my books, I borrowed science’s story from low-cost, easily-read science “trade” books. Written by eminent scientists for the edification of the unwashed masses, they were relatively easy pickings. These volumes are all dog-eared now, full of notes I scribbled in their margins. I am deeply indebted to these literate scientist-authors. My most recently-released book, Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants, is a summary and guide to over two hundred of the best science books.
Science’s story doesn’t start with humanity itself. We must first sprinkle our cosmic stage with stars, planets, and evolving life and then, starting a few million years ago, the curtain rises as the newly formed Rift Mountains cast a rain shadow over an increasingly treeless east African savanna. Lacking their beloved trees, our hominid ancestors bravely the faced lions while our two sister species, the common chimpanzees and the bonobos, remained secure in their protective western jungle. They never left their Garden of Eden, while we hominids ventured forth to become the planet’s top hunter-gatherers. Although not numerous—eating steak at the top of the food chain instead of munching grass at the bottom limits one’s numbers—by the end of the last ice age we dwelt in every continent except Antarctica.
In the warm interglacial, we Homo sapiens became numerous instead of rare by taking up agriculture. Ants, long before us, had become numerous in the same way. They developed ingenious herding and gardening skills that allowed them to tap the plentiful food at the bottom of the food chain. We simply aped the ants. By feeding off the bottom of the food chain instead of the top—eating beans instead of steak—our population soared, and soon the number of individuals in each human civilization, like each ant colony, numbered in the thousands or millions.
There was, however, a fly in our evolutionary ointment. Other life had thoughtfully restrained the ants’ success, but we were not so fortunate. Evolving our simple chimp tools into machines, we tapped a bonanza of food and fossil fuel energy. We were an irresistible team, we humans and our domesticated plants and animals—not to mention our chain saws, bulldozers, and tractors. We quickly blitzkrieged the planet; no other life could stop us as we rushed headlong towards the sustainable limits of the planet.
So what is our fate? How will our story end? I offer four representative story endings: Chimpanzee Paradise, Boom and Bust, Planetary Superorganism, and Stark Trek. Take your pick. Reversing direction, will we return to a planetary Garden of Eden, rejoining our sister chimpanzees in harmony with other life? Or, pedal to the metal, will we slam full speed into the wall of planetary finiteness, crashing into oblivion? Then again, with only modest restraint will we transform the entire Earth into one gigantic yet sustainable global farm? But why limit ourselves to the earth? Why not leave our birth-planet behind, voyage to the stars with our machine partners and, with some future Captain Kirk at the helm, establish a galactic empire and explore the universe?
Recently, I taught a short California Polytechnic State University Osher class based on my recently released book, Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants. At the end of the course my students, all 50 years of age or older, voted on which of the four futures they thought was most likely. They overwhelmingly voted for Boom and Bust. Then asked which future they thought was most desirable—irrespective of whether or not it was likely—half the class voted for Chimpanzee Paradise, while the other half was evenly split between Planetary Superorganism and Star Trek. Two animal-loving seniors voted for Boom and Bust as most desirable. Why? The sooner we go bust, they suggested, the sooner the human-induced mass extinction of other life will come to an end.
What is my take on the future? I believe we are destined to leave the planet of our birth, to spread to other stellar systems in our little corner of our galaxy—perhaps eventually to the entire galaxy. We are destined to live beyond the short, five billion year remaining life of our local star, the Sun. The universe is young, we are young, and our cosmic future stretches before us—an immense banquet we will savor for eons.
You can cultivate your own cosmic perspective on humanity by reading my book or attending one of my relaxing Hawaii conferences at the Makaha Resort: Evolution of Religion 3-9 January 2007...well, it's too late for this one, but you can still attend The Evolutionary Epic: Science's Story and Humanities Response 3-8 January 2008, or Galileo's Legacy: Small Telescope Science 1609 and 2009 (celebrating the 400th anniversary Galileo’s first observations) 31December, 2008 - 5 January, 2009.