One of the common reactions to the Webb telescope’s debut images is, “wow, makes me feel insignificant.” As an earth scientist, GG is kind of familiar with this concept, as we deal with huge amounts of time but can only participate in a very tiny part of Earth’s history.

On Earth, arguably we are the first species to be aware of deep time; to know something of the different climates Earth has seen, the different biomes, the different landscapes. All that stuff that happened was unappreciated until we came along and started to recognize it. In a way, our appreciation of, say, dinosaurs and trilobites makes their existence somehow less futile and more meaningful. That we can appreciate this vast storehouse of experience is itself a wonder.

So when we look out on galaxies unimaginably distant and in numbers that boggle the mind, the temptation is to say “we are so small.” But so far as we know to this point, we are also the only ones who are aware of all those stars. That a galaxy some 13 billion years ago threw off light we are only now seeing, and that might have gone unrecognized by the entire universe until now, makes our observing of it somehow a confirmation of its existence. How sterile a universe if there was nobody to appreciate it? In a way, you could imagine this whole show of billions of stars in billions of galaxies exists for us to wonder at. Which makes us far from insignificant.

Maybe one day we will learn of other sentient species out there and will have to share the glory in observing the universe. But until then, we’re it, sole spectators to a universal show. Which seems rather more special than insignificant.


One response to “Insignificant?”

  1. Marc linquist says :

    That first realization of the concept of time in the form of an awareness of past/present/future may be the initial catalyst to us making it this far into our present state development. I have often imagined that first moment when our very early and possibly pre-verbal ancestors became aware of the concept of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

    And then once the past/present ability is in place, it makes way for experiences of regret and hope that could develop into primitive religion and then into philosophy and then finally science. I have contemplated whether past/present/future would need to be in place or would it have developed in tandem with language as simply a tool they constructed to communicate more clearly. It would seem to be a natural development in language to refer to, for example, what happened on a hunt, initially with gestures and proto language and then extend those “stories” out over years.

    This to me is possibly the driver of our brain evolution. Those who could communicate and imagine the images in stories and use that information could understand the world around them better and improve their chances to survive. This could be the engine that would progress brain development quickly.

    I could see it being almost inevitable that once the concept of the past is understandable, a hunter injured for example, would contemplate that traumatic moment and feel the regret of the mistake. He would possibly reexamine the events leading up to the accident searching for an answer to his regret. These experiences would lead to either fear or hope for tomorrow depending on the severity of his wounds and his knowledge of the fate of others with similar injuries.

    If the injured had been considered one of importance this could be quite traumatic for all those involved. This would likely create fertile grounds for superstition and the need to anticipate the possible dangers lying in wait for them tomorrow. It’s an inevitable byproduct of increasing brain size. The increase of imagination that visualizes the stories with increasing complexity would also drive the superstition that would increasingly be included in those stories.

    Those that can process this flow of information and apply it to survival would likely pass their more advantageous brain and possibly even their cultural “education system” of language and stories on to their offspring. This may not be the standard model of evolution; it is one that has an internal mechanism of an information feedback creating an accelerated development of brain size in human ancestors.

    This information revolution of language was extraordinary in its scope. A cultural body of lingually shared trans-generational information would be indispensable to our rapidly evolving ancestors. I believe it is analogous to our modern computer driven information revolution.

    The imagination that gains insight from the story would also be more inclined for creativity. It surly is not a coincidence that humans seek out entertainment and even education based on storyline formats. I think we are wired for this type of information sharing going way back to the beginning of language. So our present opportunity to marvel at the cosmos and contemplate deep time may depend entirely on that moment when our earliest ancestors first understood the concept of a past/present /future.


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