The newest 3@2 Interview brings Terry Lecturers Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack, authors of The New Universe and the Human Future, to discuss the new scientific picture of the universe and its meaning for our lives, societies, and long-term future as a species.
Yale University Press: Why does it matter to have an accurate picture of the universe? What is the new picture?
Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack: We need an accurate map of reality to protect ourselves and our species in our increasingly technological world in the difficult times that are coming. Part of that accurate map is understanding how we humans arose out of this strange universe. When we discover the underlying principles of reality, they help give us a cosmologically long term view. When our consciousness expands to absorb that, it changes our sense of what we are and makes it not only more exciting but more accurate and thus more likely to succeed in the real world.
Everything astronomers can see with the most sophisticated instruments in every wavelength — all the stars, planets, gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of distant galaxies — totals less than half of one percent of what’s out there. A few percent are atoms of hydrogen and helium floating around, which are invisible because they are unlit by stars. But over 95% of the content of the universe consists of two mysterious presences that are invisible in principle because they do not interact with light. Dark matter (23%) holds the galaxies together and protects them from dark energy (72%), which is accelerating the expansion of the universe and tearing apart the space between gravitationally bound regions (like galaxies or clusters of galaxies). The invisible drama between these two has at last been discovered. It is a large part of our origin story.
NEA & JRP: Understanding the scientific story is step one. After that, we can begin to feel our identity in the universe by sending our consciousness backward through time, down past our parents and grandparents, past the countless generations before them, our ancestors roaming from continent to continent, our primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into a single cell, down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, back to the birth of our carbon and oxygen and iron atoms in exploding stars far across the galaxy, back to the formation of the galaxy itself deep inside a giant halo of dark matter, back through the universal expansion to the creation of our elementary particles — the particles we are made of at this very moment — in the Big Bang. We are made of history. Who we are is the sum total of our history. How far back we understand that history—how much of our own identity we claim—is up to us. No humans had this choice before. We are the first to know our real origin story. This is a very special moment.
YUP: What is the connection between a scientific picture of the universe and the future of humanity?
NEA & JRP: The human species is at a turning point. We are living through the last decades of exponential growth in resource use worldwide and hitting limits. We are changing the climate, acidifying and overfishing the oceans, and killing entire species of plants and animals at the greatest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. These problems can only be solved on a planetary level, but for that we need some common ground. It is possible that a unifying story of our origins, based on science, combined with a truly long-term perspective “could solidify the bonds of humankind,” to quote Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who was commenting at a conference of federal judges on our earlier book, The View from the Center of the Universe. There are also many ways that cosmological concepts can become an entirely new metaphorical language that can help free us from narrow habits of thinking about politics, economics, and identity.
Nancy Ellen Abrams is an attorney, philosopher of science, and lecturer. Joel R. Primack is Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Both are at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Watch the authors in conversation with Deepak Chopra on Deepak HomeBase or their TEDx Santa Cruz talk.