A true perspective of our place in this world
We all know that the world has progressed. The skyscrapers in our cities, the BMWs on our roads and the computers in our homes are all proof of our progress. Or are they?
Some of the greatest men remembered in history are not the ones who invented skyscrapers or cars or computers. We remember Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Jefferson, Kant, Nietzsche even though they did not invent things we use today. They were progressive because of their thoughts. They built on established ideas, sometimes adding to that rich body of knowledge, sometimes destroying old ideas and putting forth new ones.
Man is constantly evolving as a thinking creature. We have made great strides in understanding our environment, plants and animals, the earth and other planets but yet have a long way to go in the journey within ourselves. Both these journeys – out into space and into ourselves, our thoughts, values and happiness are integrated to progress.
Man has progressed from being ignorant to being better informed, from being egoistic to accepting his marginal role in the universe. The increase in our knowledge should have increased our humility, but has often worked the opposite way as well – our tools and implements have also made us confident of ‘conquering’ nature and overpowering it.
Ignorance, and maybe egocentricism, was what led our ancestors to the notion that our planet is the centre of the universe. The Sun, the moon, the stars (often described by them as “holes of light in the black sky”) – in fact, all planetary bodies – were believed to revolve around the earth, as if they were at our service.
Individually, I too like to believe that all the other ‘bodies’ – people, animals, plants – are made for my benefit. What is the use of a fruit tree if I cannot have its fruits? What is the use of an invention which does not make life easier for me?
But this model of the universe was to change, although slowly. A brave youth named Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the earth revolved around the Sun. This proposition took time to sink in, but led to a model of the universe which had earth as one of the planets revolving around the Sun – though the Sun was still the centre of the Universe.
Individually, I too would like to believe that at least the work I do, the company I work for, all are highly important for the world to keep moving as it is.
But more information about the universe kept making us more humble.
Our solar system is a very small part of a large group of stars called the Milky Way Galaxy. And it is not even the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy, it is on one of the distant spiral arms, towards the edge of the galaxy. And this, our galaxy, is one of the 100,000,000,000 (1011) such galaxies inhabiting the known universe.
So if we look at our world – this universe – (and there may be infinite universes, as per the latest theories of quantum physics), we are one of 6 billion humans, which is one of 2 million species of known living beings on this planet, which is one of the (1011) planets in the Milky Way, which is one of (1011) galaxies in the known universe. All this translates to our being one out of (1037) (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) elements. How important does that sound?
In his book, Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams describes the ultimate punishment rendered to humans in a futuristic age. The person is taken to a huge telescope from where he is able to see the whole universe in perspective – the stars, the planets, the earth. And he can see them in their relative sizes. He also sees himself, compared to the size and number of the planets. The result? He is so shaken and humbled that he develops an inferiority complex for many years!
The knowledge gained from space is simple – that we are not the centre of the world, that all the pleasures of this world are made for everybody to share, not for me alone. Just as our collective thought has progressed from the false belief that we are the centre of the universe, we need to personally progress from the belief that ‘I am the centre of the world,’ to being one of the people on the earth who can contribute positively if we all work together.
We are like the stars – we might feel big and important individually, but lets suppose one of the stars in a distant galaxy was to veer off course, would we notice it? Who would care if it changed course or colour?
Of course, the saving grace here is that the change in a star does affect its neighborhood – just as a change in our health affects our near and dear ones. So, we are important to our near ones, and we can make a difference in our surroundings, if we can work together and as part of a team. As the Jewish theological seminary says, “A life is a single letter in the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.”
Let us be part of that great meaning.
Written By: Ritesh Gadhia