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The Cosmos in My Neighborhood

Sometime in the spring my neighbor, a former publisher, left out some books on the sidewalk. I picked up an attractively short biography called Einstein's Cosmos by Michio Kaku. It doesn't outright say it's for dummies, but if you try to cover Einstein in 278 pages, you're clearly going for low to mid range intellects. So I'm the target market for this book. Plus it's free. Sold.

We feel smart when we walk here.

Trying to understand Einstein when you can't help your kids with algebra.

Einstein not only lived in Princeton for many years, he apparently spent a fair amount of time in our neighborhood. Our contractor who's lived here forever said that he used to get sandwiches at a bar around the corner from us (now a gas station). And a woman who is basically the neighborhood historian told me that Einstein would sometimes walk her home from The Institute for Advanced Studies where her mother worked. She said he liked our neighborhood because the houses were close together and people hung out on their porches which reminded him of him of his home. Finally, when he died his infamous autopsy happened at the hospital at the other end of the street where Angela was born 52 years later. (the doctor who did Einstein's autopsy stole his brain--great Radiolab story about it).

So I have plenty of reason to have an interest in Einstein. The problem is the math. Math intimidates me (except at a craps table). But the Kaku book was pretty great, because he threads you back and forth from Einstein's story to the science he discovered in a given time in his life. And I was surprised to find myself fascinated enough by relativity that I wanted to understand it better. So for the past 6 months or so I have continued to try to forcibly insert complicated concepts about space and time into my puny brain. Success has been limited.

Not a scientology book.

Over the Reading Rainbow

After a tough slog through Brian Greene's excellent but challenging Fabric of the Cosmos, and a slightly less tough slog with Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox (which my wife accurately calls a picture book), I have been listening to Cosmos by Carl Sagan. You have to give a guy credit when he can make a 40+ years old astronomy book feel relevant.

Sagan writes with this this sort of childlike wonder and awe at the universe and peoples' quest for knowledge. And they've got Lavar Burton reading it, so you've got this Star Trek/PBS exploratory eagerness running throughout it. But while a lot of the time I'm sold on this journey we're on, there are times when the facts sort of butt up against 21st century realities.

He has a section where he talks about the risks of global warming:

The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two- degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. We do not understand the long-term effects of our course of action.

So the threat was real to him, apparently before it was to many others. But it was still just a threat. And I find the phrasing sad. Because not only do we know the long-term effects of our course of action, we're experiencing the effects right now. And we're not doing much to stop it.

The Earth loses an ally

Our good friend and neighbor Stephanie Chorney passed away this week. Stephanie might have been the most purely empathetic person I've ever known. I say pure because it wasn't covered over in sentimentality. She was direct and forthright, to the point that when I first met her I was a little intimidated. But over time (not a lot of time) her inherent goodness became apparent. She is a person who took the concept of making the world a better place seriously, every day. And it's not like she just had one pet project. She was a pediatrician, so she was committed to science and helping kids. But outside of her job she was fighting for racial justice, food security, sustainability and a lot more. (Learn more about Stephanie or even better give to her foundation).

As I write this, we're a month away from the 2020 election where a scary number of people continue to support a president who openly brags about not caring about other people. I have been struggling with how to think about the conservatives I know who seem to be decent people but will tolerate and give power to a person who stands for hate. Likewise, a lot of seemingly intelligent people continue to deny or minimize the importance of the human impact on climate change. I think on some level they know they're lying to themselves. It seems like a cynical decision that the costs to them personally now (in a carbon tax, in taking public transportation, etc) are more important than the destruction that will come to future generations.

I think about Billy Joel's awful song Only the Good Die Young. Where he seems to be expressing this concept that Virginia should make the choice of the thing that she wants to do (in this case, according to Billy Joel, that's sleeping with Billy Joel) rather than the things that she should do. And the song's argument is that there no one keeping score. Being good doesn't get you anywhere.

If you change out a few words in that song and make Virginia's choice not to be about whether she should lose her virginity to Billy Joel, or whether she should commit to making sustainable choices for the good of the earth, the song's thesis stays the same. There is no reward for being good. It just makes you a sucker.

People like Stephanie counter this worldview by building a community of people who appreciate them and, in many ways, emulate them. Stephanie was the ultimate "do as I do" person. The more time you spend around Stephanie (and I didn't spend enough) the more you realize that if more people were like her, the world would be a better place. She has inspired us to do more and I'm sure many others.

But some optimism doesn't age well

Sagan talks about how billions of years from now the sun will become a red giant that will expand to devour most of the solar system including the Earth. In this he has this sort of throwaway line about how by this point humans will have been so adaptable as to probably have found an alternate home in the Milky Way. And I find myself wanting to shake him and be like, "dude, we can't even stop using coal!" It's like watching prequel to Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy is this really cute 7-year old kid who just doesn't like to cut his nails and everyone thinks it's endearing and sweet. And you're like, no, this is not going to end well!

Important white people watching Apollo 11

Sagan wrote Cosmos about 10 years after we reached the Moon. I saw the Apollo 11 documentary (strong recommend) and you could feel this sense of pride and excitement running through the whole thing. I think for scientists and especially astronomers, the return trip from the moon was this signal that human beings can do just about fucking anything. JFK said we'd put someone on the moon by the end of the 60s and we goddam well did.

Politicians still use the word "moonshot" referring to ending cancer, stopping global warming, and now to beating COVID (I just did a Google for "moonshot criminal justice" and apparently that no one's gone there yet). But the idea with the word is that since we did that amazing thing, we must also be able to do this other thing, right? If we have a clear focus, and engage smart scientists are given the right resources we can do anything. The spirit feels so foreign today. First of all, and I could be wrong about this: I don't think we made any money going to the moon. Now the space program, like just about everything else, needs to be run by or at least a private industry with a profit motive attached.

This cheeseball is dictating our strategy for space.

Science continues to be spectacular. What we can do with computers and phones is an ongoing marvel. But for the most part we're harnessing our brainpower (using royal we here, but it's goddam-well not my brainpower) to make things to sell people or to automate things so we can fire people. This idea that we this joint energy and communal spirit to solve existential issues the planet is facing feels like a fantasy. We know what we need to do to slow down global warming. We just don't feel like it.

We Are Not Alone. Unless We Are.

Sagan was very much motivated by finding alien life. Early in the book he explains some research he and a partner did about the possibility of life in the atmosphere of Jupiter (weirdly, the day after I listened to it they announced the possibility of life in the atmosphere of Venus). But he's obviously most interested in intelligent life. His feeling seems to be that with hundreds of billions of stars in hundreds billions of galaxies the idea that we are the only place where life thrives is absurd. He goes to great lengths to refer to us as living in near an average sun hanging of an arm of a random obscure galaxy in a remote galaxy cluster. We're probably not special. And so our loss, whenever it comes, and whether we hastened it or not, would not be a huge deal in the cosmic sense.

But Sagan also makes the point that life on Earth started only 500 million years after the earth was formed. And then for the next 3 billion years life on Earth was just microbes (one of a zillion things in this book I didn't know). So whatever Darwinistic shit happened to get those microbes to evolve into intelligent life doesn't seem to have been a slam dunk.

So I think it is reasonable to leave the possibility that our form of life is extraordinary. What if with all of the billions of possible breeding grounds for life in the universe, earth is the only place where it happened? In that scenario the last 200,000 years of human life are this kind of miracle, where we're the only ones in the universe who gained this level of consciousness and understanding, and created beautiful art and music and theatre.

Global warming on Venus. 880 degrees today.

In this view we are doing to our planet right now is a more dire and desperate crime than we could even imagine. This is where the concept of sustainability, a boring-sounding word, is so desperately important. On big time scales, small actions in the present have huge ripples later. We know the earth is warming, but if our actions now limit the amount of the warming this could be the difference between a mostly livable planet and a Cormac McCarthy wasteland in a few centuries.

Death and Sustainability

Most of us don't like to think about death. And the idea that we don't know when it'll come is useful. Most people stopped smoking when the evidence became clear that for the most part, it accelerates our own death. That's a big motivator. With climate change, we're hastening the death of people who don't exist yet. And for most of us, the real damage will most likely be done when we're gone. People like Stephanie are able to see and grasp the importance of sustaining the earth beyond their own lives and even the lives of their children.

Thinking about the human impact of climate change is a little like pondering on your own mortality. Life is less fun when you're conscious of it, so we try not to think about it. And Republicans have not cornered the market on this kind of day-to-day denial. While I will vote Green and drive a Prius and compost, I also drive a minivan and frequently leave an air conditioner on for my dog when I'm only out for an hour or so. I think about the warming climate but too often don't feel the urgency. And I don't do enough of the hard, boring work of personal responsibility and political engagement that we need to make a difference.

I'm made of a star and so was Stephanie and so are you.

I have always known that we are stardust because Crosby Stills and Nash told me so (through Joni Mitchell). But the details! I won't bore you with an exhaustive list of all the things I didn't know about stars that are amazeballs, but here are two:

  • Most of the elements besides hydrogen and helium were formed in exploding stars. Supernovas are really where the important shit happens.

  • The sun was made from the remnants of another dead star, which might have also been made from a dead star. So we are the products of some kind of cosmic recycling that plays out on a massive scale.

To me, these things heighten our importance. Incredible fucking things had to happen for us to exist here. And in the case of someone like Stephanie, it's worth appreciating.

One of the troubling things about nature and the universe is that in a lot of ways it does not seem like kindness and empathy is baked in to the cosmic plan. I just got through this chapter about how if you happen to live somewhere near a quasar, it could essentially vaporize your galaxy. And if you're a believer that life is plentiful, a quasar wiping out a few hundred billion stars in one go sounds pretty dark.

Annihilation of life seems to be pretty standard practice in nature. It was been happening on Earth long before humans started fucking with it. The universe seems kind of amoral. Natural selection, while brilliant, isn't particularly nice. Predators live on if they're good at killing things. When you see it this way, it actually makes kindness and empathy seem more precious. It doesn't come naturally. It takes work. And you probably shouldn't do it thinking you'll get some larger cosmic reward for it besides how it makes you feel.

Empathy in the universe and on my street.

I think this is important because once we see that other people are either fundamentally good or not good, we start to think that's just in their nature. I am guilty of this. When I would think of a spectacular person like Stephanie, I might think her goodness is somehow inherent to her, as opposed to being an active choice that she made every day. And maybe even something she had to work at.

When you look at human choices in the context of the spectacular indifference of the universe, empathy is a bit of a miracle. The Golden Rule is golden for a reason. [Gold is produced when two neutron stars collide, BTW, so yeah it kind of is precious.]

Empathy is not an element. It doesn't come from the stars. It happens in individual moments, right here and now. And it isn't limited to the amazing people, anyone can find it at any time. But the people who knew Stephanie Chorney, I bet, have it a little bit more than they would if they never knew her.


PS: While I was working on this, unbeknownst to me, my wife was creating this lovely video note to Stephanie which you can find here:

PPS: Less relevant, but for my birthday Mary made a video with my kids essentially mocking my efforts to articulate my feelings on space. If you've gotten this far, you can understand how this could be an easy target. We didn't send it to Steph (or post it on the socials) because, well, because it's sort of wrong on many levels. I regret it though, as I think it would have made her smile. Anyway, if you've made it to the end of this post and have an interest let me know and I'll pass it on.

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