Purpose In An Uncomprehending Universe. #34 #cong22


As a space-focused STEAM communicator, I argue that the vast and creepily silent universe we have revealed through science shouldn’t be a reason for feelings of despair or insignificance, but of specialness and purpose.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. You are made of the universe
  2. Generations of stars died so that you may live.
  3. So far as we have verifiably discovered, life and intelligence exist only here.
  4. We owe it to the rest of the insensate universe to experience and understand as much of reality as we can.

About Brendan Caulfield:

A lifelong science fiction nerd, I bounced through the pinball table of life from meaningless job to meaningless job until I found steam workshop facilitation.

Now I find peace and fulfilment in igniting the spark of curiosity and creativity in young minds.

I love space science and engineering, TV and film production design, computer games, and 3D printing.

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d be a Starfleet officer or a pioneering Mars colonist.

Contacting Brendan Caulfield:

You can connect  with Brendan on Twitter or send him an email.

By Brendan Caulfield

Finding Purpose In An Infinite Cosmos

I’m a space-nut and a hobbyist astronomer. I grew up watching Star Trek and other sci-fi on TV and thinking that the real life universe was a bit bland in comparison.

About 15 years ago, I started taking an interest in the reality of space travel and the universe – thanks to a combo of finding my brother’s old telescope in the attic, watching Carl Sagan’s seminal 1980 docuseries “Cosmos”, and the first credible rumblings of renewed space exploration ambition coming from the private sector.

What I realised as I absorbed more and more science information about deep space phenomena and the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, and nebulae, was that I wasn’t learning about some abstract, out-there, irrelevant construct that is completely divorced from lived reality… I was learning about us – I was learning about me.

And… I was learning about you.

Look at your hand. It’s a collection of meat, sinew, and bone. Those materials are made of molecules. Those molecules are arrangements of atoms that used to be part of the Earth or the air, until they were eaten or breathed, by you or your parent (or your food’s food’s food) and eventually found themselves arranged by astonishing natural processes of chemistry and physics into the structure you are probably now inspecting and wiggling and feeling a bit alien about.

But wait, where did the atoms come from that comprise the molecules that constitute this strange meat-spider that you puppeteer on the end of your equally mysterious arm?

The obvious, and correct – but incomplete – answer, is the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is the origin of all matter in the universe, but the matter created at that instant 13.82 billion years ago was mostly in the form of the simplest elements like hydrogen and helium. It was almost completely smoothly distributed throughout the universe, but minor density variations caused some regions to have more gravitational pull than others, causing the gas to collapse in on itself and ignite the nuclear fusion furnace of the first generation of stars.

Furnaces are an apt metaphor for stars because, just as furnaces forge new alloys, stars forge simple, light elements into heavier ones – and then, with a bit more effort, fuses those into even heavier ones.

Stars are stuff-making machines, taking fuel like that abundant hydrogen and helium, and making heavier elements like oxygen, carbon, calcium, potassium, sodium, etc. fusing progressively heavier elements in the unimaginable heat and pressure deep within.

As the matter in a star is converted to heavier elements, it takes ever more heat and pressure produce ever-heavier atoms. The process stops short in and around the production of lead, which is so hard to make that the star quickly runs out of fuel.

The fusion furnace at the heart of a star is very much the same kind of fusion that occurs in a fusion bomb, but it is continuous. For as long as there is stuff to fuse, it fuses and explodes, fuses and explodes, non-stop, for millions or billions of years.

It’s the tenuous balance between the inward-pulling force of gravity and the outward-pushing force of that constant explosion that keeps the star spherical in shape.

Once the fusion explosion stops, gravity “wins the fight” and the star collapses in on itself. This final collapse (among other similar processes) is where most of the heaviest elements like gold and uranium are made. In those few moments (literally seconds or minutes) that it takes for the squelching gravity of the star to pull the now-unsupported bulk of its matter down on itself, falling matter collides with enough punch to fuse the heavier stuff.

The fall ends when the star’s matter bounces off the core in one last titanic fusion explosion It’s so powerful that it sprays the matter comprising the star (all the “stuff” its lifetime of progressively-harder fusion has produced), into the surrounding space as swiftly-cooling gas and dust.

That gas and dust eventually collapses to form new stars and planets, and some of those stars live out their life cycles and explode too, adding to the soup of fusion-enriched star-guts floating thinly in space. These cyclical births and deaths of stars gradually filled the universe with the ingredients for rocky planets and fleshy apes like us…

… And yet in all of that, we haven’t yet found credible evidence of other intelligent life forms.

We are animate star-matter that has evolved through gravity, fusion, and natural selection to the point of being able to comprehend our own atomic nature and origin… “a way for the cosmos to know itself”, as Carl Sagan so peerlessly expressed it… but we seem to be alone. In a vast and apparently uncomprehending universe, we apparently have the only eyes, the only ears, the only hands, and the only brains capable of synthesizing what our senses tell us into a convincing estimation of reality.

To hope to comprehend even 1% of what we now believe to be the extent of reality is ludicrously ambitious, but if it’s purpose you seek, what better is there than this:

To be the universe’s senses. To learn and experience as much as is accessible to us. To live well and learn always and pay back the good fortune of our own existence by aiming to know as much as can be known.

That’s what I call purpose.

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