I have spent a good part of my life looking at the moon in awe. It was always thrilling to get a pair of binoculars or a telescope that allowed me to stalk the moon’s surface and imagine what size of meteor it was that crashed into it leaving the finger print of its collision and the sudden end of its journey through infinity.
Looking out into space takes my breath away and leaves me wondering how we got here and why it matters that we matter.
So when I watched the Mars landing my heart was in my mouth.
Some people are treating Mars as though it might prove to be a refuge in case we mess up the earth so badly that we need a back stop to survive. So there is talk about making Mars habitable in some way so that it can act as a refuge to humanity.
Presumably this would be the for 1% of ultra-rich who own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the rest of the world. There seems to be no recognition about the troublesome reality of human nature. Perhaps they would take their commitment to equality to Mars to help build a fairer society?
Maybe at the same time they would turn out to have found a way to kick humanity’s habit of polluting wherever we are?
No doubt they could escape our habit of polluting; especially strangling the oceans in plastic. But space is not a virgin eco zone. We have polluted space already.
In October 2019 the US Space Surveillance Network reported that we have littered the orbit above earth with 20,000 visible pieces of space junk. There are 34,000 bits larger than 10 centimetres and 900,000 sized between 1 and 10 centimetres. We have already turned space around our planet into a lethal junk yard. The International Space Station has been equipped with a shield to save it from small bits of lethal space junk and computers help it dodge bigger and more dangerous ones.
The problem, which the ‘would-be-escapee-Elon-Musk-rich’suffer from as much as the poor, is the self-destructiveness of human nature. We might conceivably be clever enough to land people on Mars one day who could theoretically escape the trashing of our earth, but they could not escape human nature and anywhere else we got to would get trashed as effectively as the Earth and the space around it. What about our penchant for violence and doing evil to our neighbours?
Mars and our ambitions to escape ourselves throw up some very testing questions about what human beings are doing in the universe, and how it is we seem caught in the middle between what we recognise as good and evil as creativity and destruction.
Much of the last one hundred and fifty years has been spent trying to create a different account about humanity without any God language. Are we just random accidents who happen to have consciousness and live by meaning in un unconscious meaningless universe? If so, how does that work? And why do we suffer depression and despair when life has no meaning?
For a while, we played with statistics and thought that the universe was so vast that there might be countless places where evolution could have produced human beings on other well-placed planets; as if making us cosmically commonmade the accidental bit easier to live with.
But researchers at Oxford university have accidentally putGod is back in the conversation.
They have recently run computer models suggesting that we may be unique after all.
They discovered that the time frame for intelligent life to evolve on a planet before its sun burnt itself out was narrower than we had thought. It took 4.5 billion years for life to evolve on this planet, and if it had been just a little slower it would have run out of time.
It turns out the expected transition times for evolution to produce intelligent life could easily have taken much longer. “This suggests that intelligent life is likely to be exceptionally rare,” they concluded.
There are only one billion years left before the sun’s luminosity will make the earth (and Mars) totally uninhabitable and put an end to any life here.
Even more oddly than this critical timing window, is the fact that there was nothing inevitable about evolution alone producing us
Some of our critical evolutionary transitions seem to have occurred only once in Earth’s history. They weren’t at allinevitable; which suggests making us the product of meaningless chance rather than an intelligent mindastronomically less likely.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that “if the ‘tape of life’ were to be rerun, ‘the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence’ would occur.”
Watching a spacecraft landing on Mars prompts me yet again to wonder with awe how we got here, why we want to escape from ourselves and why we are built to need meaning and purpose in our life, if the universe doesn’t contain any.
It reminded me of the first cosmonaut to enter space and return saying with bravado on behalf of his Russian atheist government that sent hgim there: “I have looked into the universe and I saw no God!” A well-read young peasant girl sent him a postcard. “Dear Comrade, I wasn’t surprised byyour observations. It was once wisely said “Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God.” (St Matthew 5.8)