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A Little Lower Than the Angels?


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When Nicolas Copernicus relegated the Earth from the center of the cosmos to one of several planets revolving around the sun, he let the genie out of the bottle. If our planet didn't sit at the focus of everything, as Copernicus claimed, then maybe humankind wasn't quite as exalted as the Psalmist had it: "a little lower than the angels." Four hundred years later, Charles Darwin showed how the relentless thrust of evolution further dilutes our previously self-glorified status. From the apex of the tree of life, he demoted our species to one of millions of twigs on life's bush, all descended from a single common ancestor.

The decentralization process continued with the downgrading of our galaxy, which until a hundred years ago was thought to be the galaxy. The era of big telescopes with their attached spectrographs (which indirectly measure distance) gave rise to the realization that the Milky Way wasn't unique, but one of a myriad of galaxies, each home to billions of stars. We now know that the observable universe holds more stars than the grains of sand on all of Earth's beaches.

Our demotion doesn't stop there, according to some contemporary physicists who propose that even our universe isn't special! "Universe" used to be interpreted literally: "that which is combined into one." Now speculation runs rife with talk of "multiverses." Whatever process created our universe, goes this fantastical way of thinking, also created an infinite number of other universes. Far from being a unique creation on a central world, we now find ourselves one of 10 million extant species on an inconspicuous planet randomly located in perhaps one of a whole slew of universes.

And yet ... humans are special. Lacking information to the contrary, we are the only species on Earth that questions its existence. Our planet may not be unique, but it is rare, orbiting in an ideal "Goldilocks" zone between hot and cold, with a large moon for long-term stability. The particular physical parameters of our universe nudge matter into complicated atoms and molecules, including those necessary for life. (The force of gravity, for instance, is neither too weak to allow stars to form in the first place, nor so strong that it would cause stars to burn out too rapidly for biology to happen.) Our timing, too, is perfect, existing as we do in a calm-but-not-too-calm era between the violent birth and the slow "heat death" of our universe. Not to mention — speaking of being special — that you and I are the end points of nearly four billion years of unbroken genetic baton-passing from one generation to the next.

So there's the paradox: On the one hand, any significance to our lives is lost against the background noise of everything else; on the other, here we are, consciousness contemplating the cosmos, against unimaginable statistical odds. You'd think (in the words of the late physician-essayist Lewis Thomas) "the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise."

Barry Evans ([email protected]) is dazzled to be living in the short span between slow-speed dental drills and any one of the coming catastrophes.


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