Imagine learning for the very first time — contrary to public opinion and centuries of contemporary science — that the world was actually round. Imagine being that first group of scientists (regents and spiritual leaders) or politicians (again, regents and spiritual leaders) or shell-shocked shepherds who grazed for thousands of years through the countrysides of the known world, convinced that if they wandered just a little too far, they might, in fact, fall right off the edge of the planet.
Life in those days was distinctly two-dimensional. There were the heavens, and there was the earth, and never the twain should meet. Stars were but holes in a giant celestial blanket while various pagan deities pulled the moon and the sun through the canvas of black and blue on the backs of celestial chariots.
At the time, “god” was the answer to all things unknowable. He was the lightning that punished the earth and the rain that nourished the soil; he was the sun that bathed the trees in light and the wind that whispered through their leaves; he was the exultant pleasure of conception and the unbearable pain of birth. He was the answer to every question and the question to every answer. And at the time, “god” saw that this was good.
This 2-D existence was popularized at the time by the early Mesopotamians, who thought of the world as a gigantic flattened disk, floating gently in the ethereal oceans of the universe. This essentially “linear” understanding endured for quite some time, as mathematics struggled to keep up with the incredible and growing “non-linear” physics of our world. It wasn’t until the golden age of ancient Greece that an alternative view of the universe finally emerged, and it took the collective wisdom of Pythagoras and Aristotle (among other prominent contemporary mathematicians) to prove with physical evidence — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that the earth wasn’t flat after all.
To do so, Aristotle (in particular) compiled the following basic logic: 1) when ships recede over the distant horizon, they always disappear from the bottom first; 2) southern constellations rise higher above the horizon the further south you travel (the same can be said of the north); and 3) the shadow that the earth casts on the moon during a lunar eclipse is always circular, no matter how high above the horizon (one unique property of perfect spheres is that they cast circular shadows in every direction).
With that simple deductive logic, our understanding of the universe was radically and irrevocably altered, creating what I like to call the First Great Divide. Ships could now sail with confidence in every direction (leading up to the great oceanic crossings of Magellan and Marco Polo), and as a species, we took our first great leap toward a greater knowledge of basic physics and the underlying structure of the universe.
Oddly enough, that was just the beginning…
Let There Be Light
As the brightest natural object in the sky, the sun has always been a great source of both secular interest and spiritual mythology. But even our earliest ideas about the basic structure of the universe placed the Earth, and not the sun, at the centre of all things. In Ptolemy’s earliest vision of celestial structure (the so-called “geocentric” model), the Earth was surrounded by a series of concentric crystal spheres, each containing one of the 55 brightest elements in your typical 3rd century sky. From this early theory, we also borrowed the word “planet”, which is greek for “wanderer” (so nicknamed for the erratic patterns they trace through an otherwise uniform night sky).
Despite the eventual failing of their underlying logic, these early models of universal motion were still able to predict and explain complex astronomical phenomena like retrograde motion and the multiple phases of the moon (half, full, new, etc.). In fact, so convincing was the Ptolemeic world view that, with only subtle refinement, his geocentric model of the universe lasted well into the 1600s, and almost survived the dawn of the refracting telescope. That’s right…almost.
The principal function of your typical refracting lens is to gather and focus light. That in itself might seem harmless enough, until you consider that such a simple feat of classical optics actually brought about the most fundamental scientific revolution of all time (i.e. the separation of science and religion, or as i like to call it: the Second Great Divide. Prior to the refractor, religion was the centre of all things “scientific”. Throughout the middle ages, the church had carried the torch of both spirituality and academia, founding its first medieval universities in the early 1100s and keeping the flame of “progressive conservative” thought alive and well while the rest of the world slept quietly for the next 400 years.
Then out of nowhere, in early 1514, a truly remarkable monk by the name of Nicolaus Copernicus made his “Commentariolus” available to a few of his closest personal friends. In so doing, he set in motion one of the greatest shifts in scientific ideology of all time, in the same great tradition as euclid’s ground-breaking geometry, Aristotle’s ground-breaking Poetics, Darwin’s ground-breaking evolution by natural selection and Newton’s ground-breaking physics.
It was a work of revolutionary potential, particularly for a Catholic monk, in that it challenged the church’s well-established doctrine on the geocentric nature of our universe. As a result, Copernicus is often cited as the father of modern science, astronomy and planetary physics, and his theories ultimately inspired the great figures of early astronomy including Galileo (master of scientific methodology), Brahe (master of celestial observation) and Kepler (master of celestial physics).
But his most enduring “inspiration” was ultimately his ability to separate any personal spiritual beliefs about the origins and structure of the universe from any tangible physical evidence. It’s the same ability that “inspired” those first great Athenian scientists to challenge the most common perceptions about the nature of the world, and forced spirituality to answer the questions it was originally designed to answer, questions of a more “existential” nature.
Both Copernicus and Galileo were chastised rather severely by the church for their heretical views on the structure of the solar system. At the time, church doctrine was very clear about the Earth being the centre of god’s universe — a view that played rather conveniently into the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith. But in defense of this “heresy”, as a practicing member of the clergy, Copernicus himself once wrote:
“For I am not so enamored of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. I am aware that a philosopher’s ideas are not subject to the judgement of ordinary persons, because it is his endeavor to seek the truth in all things, to the extent permitted to human reason by god. Yet i hold that completely erroneous views should be shunned. Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the Earth remains at rest in the middle of the heaven as its center would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the Earth moves.
“For when a ship is floating calmly along, the sailors see its motion mirrored in everything outside, while on the other hand they suppose that they are stationary, together with everything on board. In the same way, the motion of the Earth can unquestionably produce the impression that the entire universe is rotating.
“Therefore alongside the ancient hypotheses, which are no more probable, let us permit these new hypotheses also to become known, especially since they are admirable as well as simple and bring with them a huge treasure of very skillful observations. So far as hypotheses are concerned, let no one expect anything certain from astronomy, which cannot furnish it, lest he accept as the truth ideas conceived for another purpose, and depart from this study a greater fool than when he entered it. Farewell.”
Isaac Newton once insisted that “if [he had] seen any further that most, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and no greater a “giant” existed than this half-man, half-monk, who managed to bridge the Second Great Divide with equal parts logic and spirituality, and paved the way for all scientific discovery still to come.
Which leads us, rather nicely, into the Third Great Divide.
On the Seventh Day…
Imagine learning for the very first time that — contrary to public opinion and centuries of contemporary science — our sun was in fact just one of over 3 million suns in our galaxy, which is in turn only one of an estimated 80 billion galaxies spread throughout the known universe. Under fairly conservative estimates, that translates into over 240,000,000,000,000,000 (240 million billion) stars.
To be sure, that’s a very, very big number, and we owe its early discovery to none other than Edwin hubble, one of the most prominant astronomers of our time, and the man for whom our most famous sky-bound telescope was eventually named. At the time when Hubble was gazing ever skyward, many of our intergalactic neighbours appeared to be nothing more than massive “gaseous clouds” on the distant edges of our own galaxy. But with yet another optical revolution (led this time by an orphaned german lensmaker and his study of the newborn science of spectroscopy), and armed with the science of Doppler‘s infamous “shift“, Hubble was able to assemble a surprisingly clear picture of universal motion, and under his gifted direction, the centre of the universe had shifted yet again.
Let’s recall: at first, the Earth was the centre of all things visible, and humankind was the centre of life. Then, after the brilliant collective insight of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, our sun took centre stage. This was followed rather quickly by a more galactic world view, as telescopes increased in range and power and our home galaxy became the centre of the known universe. Finally, with the advent of Hubble’s groundbreaking law, what we found in the end is that there was, in fact, no centre at all. Existence was more vast than we could ever expect; indeed, it was more vast than we could every truly comprehend.
Which begs the obvious question: with all the trillions and trillions of stars and galaxies in the universe, and all that empty space, is it really possible that we’re the only form of intelligent life in the universe? And if so, how did we get here?
It’s probably a bit naive for us to believe that Earth is the only planet out of the billions and trillions of star systems in the universe that, through statistical fortune or divine providence, produced a species with both metacognition and sufficiently advanced technology to communicate with distant, extra-solar worlds. If, in fact, we aren’t the only ones floating around in space, what are the chances that we’ll ever manage to bridge that next Great Divide (i.e. the billions and billions of kilometers in between us) and chat in math or waves of light with our nearest interstellar neighbours?
Among his other impressive intellectual conquests, contemporary Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (developer of the first nuclear reactor and early quantum theory) was one of the first few scientists to explore the probability of finding intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe, scattered somewhere amongst all those twinkling stars. His early analysis was based on a simplifying equation, proposed in the 1960s by pre-eminent American astronomer and astrophysicist Dr. Frank Drake.
In essence, Drake’s equation states that the probability of finding extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe is subject to a number of very simple variables, and when these variables are taken together (using very conservative estimations), there is decent probability of other intelligent life actually existing in the universe. Better still, insists the math, this extra-terrestrial intelligence is far more prevalent that we might have initially thought (i.e. the infamous Fermi Paradox).
To better explain, consider the following formula (apologies in advance for the use of algebra):
N is the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might expect to be able to communicateand
R* is the rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars which have planets
ne is average number of planets which can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above which actually go on to develop life
fi is the fraction of the above which actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of the above which are willing and able to communicate
L is the expected lifetime of such a civilization
Disagreement still exists on the values of most of these unknown parameters, but the values used by Drake and his colleagues back in 1961 were as follows:
- R* = 10/year,
- fp = 0.5,
- ne = 2,
- fl = 1,
- fi = fc = 0.01,
- and L = 10,000 years.
As the equation carries on, its easy to see where the skeptics first begin to surface. Under even the most conservative scenario, the value of ‘N’ is still often greater than 1 (i.e. there is at least one other planet in our galaxy that hosts a civilization with which we can communicate). Many challenges have surfaced that question the lack of observable evidence to support Fermi and his math. They often sport sci-fi titles like the “Rare Earth hypothesis” (that despite all those probabilities, our Earth is still statistically “unique”), the “percolation theory” (that advanced civilizations percolate outwards disproportionately), and the “zoo hypothesis” (that the Earth is being observed from afar like a giant wilderness preserve), but all are as ethereal as Fermi’s original paradox.
That said, of all the commentary on either side of the great interstellar debate, one voice stands out among the crowd. World-renowned astronomer Carl Sagan once speculated that the lifetime of a civilization (“L”), and not the enormity of the universe, was the most significant variable. In other words, the key determinant of whether a communicable civilization exists elsewhere in the galaxy is not whether the conditions existed for life to form, grow and develop, but for life in any technological civilization to avoid its own self-destruction. That’s quite a sobering thought, in the grand scheme of things, and therein lies the essence what I like to call the Last Great Divide.
The Bigger Picture
Humanity, it would seem, is still completely out of touch with its own mortality. Both as a species, and as the self-proclaimed guardians of our planet, we’ve discovered a great many things about a great many things, but we still don’t seem to grasp “the bigger picture”. We may have figured out that the Earth isn’t flat, and that the sun is at the centre of our solar system, and that the solar system is actually in the second last arm of the spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way, and that the Milky Way is actually a member of a local group of galaxies within an even greater supercluster of galaxies that astronomers have nicknamed the “Great Wall“, and that the structure of this supercluster is dependent very heavily on a material called “dark matter“, a substance astronomers have never directly observed, but that might constitute as much as 90-95% of the known the universe.
So after all that progress, from two simple dimensions to basic heliocentrism to the greater questions of modern cosmology, science can still only explain less than 10% of the observable world. Now where exactly does that leave us? What more could we possibly learn about the world that we don’t already know? What more could there possibly be? And will any of this knowledge bring us any closer to that one “eternal” question which, in no uncertain terms, is the only real answer we’ve ever really wanted?
Famed british astronomer Stephen Hawking once insisted that “god does not play dice”. If that’s actually true, as long as science continues to race toward the answer to that “ultimate” scientific question, a great spiritual divide will always remain. But maybe that’s just it. Maybe the truth isn’t in the answer itself, but in the enduring quest to find it. Maybe the only bridge between science and spirituality is the answer that lies within.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ve had that answer all along.