We are the dominant species on a rock circling a star that is one of 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Billions! Think of that! But it gets better: our galaxy itself is one of 100+ billion other galaxies, making up the enormity that is our known cosmos. Frankly it's impossible to imagine the immensity, too big to comprehend, leading to us shaking our heads and giving up. But stay with me here because its important.
This universe is very old, currently pegged as 13.75 billion years (give or take a billion) since the Big Bang started it all. Even stranger, science is beginning to find evidence that there may be other universes, perhaps as many as there are stars, with new universes popping into existence (their own Big Bangs), lasting mind-boggling amounts of time, and then dying out. As we go about our daily activities on the planet Earth it's both exciting and terrifying to think about what is happening on a cosmic scale, where stars explode and galaxies collide, producing devastation on a gargantuan scale.
Though our universe is old, human history is not. I read a recent article that, for the sake of comparison, compressed the universe's timeline into one calendar year. In that conflation, the Big Bang occurs on January 1, but life doesn't appear on Earth until October 2. Mammals evolve on December 26, and human beings as we now call ourselves arrive at the end of the last day of the year at seven minutes to midnight. All of recorded history occurs in the final ten seconds of December 31st.
In spite of our short time on it, we human beings have completely conquered this planet, every inch of it. Think of what an accomplishment that really is! We went from being hunted by lions and wolves to worrying that we'll wipe each of them out as a species unless we work very hard to keep the pitiful remnants of their kind alive. In just the blink of an eye in geological time we've moved out of the caves into the condos. While we bitch and moan about the problems of Earth and its peoples, we are striving mightily, creatively, to solve those problems. So, just for now, stop focusing on problems, remembering that if they were all resolved this very day, by morning there'd be new ones. As the old year ends, let's celebrate the wonderful accomplishments of humanity. We've established a worldwide understanding on what is right (democracy, peace, equal treatment of women, cooperation between the races, exchange of information on a global instantaneous basis, free trade—naming but a few of our planetary aspirations) and what is wrong (war, intolerance of differences, trade barriers, depletion of Earth's resources, etc.). As a planet we're enforcing these new standards, condemning those who will not follow them to live in their own little bunkers (think North Korea) until they can be brought one way or another into the world's community. We should be very proud of this international establishment of a human morality, one that we're forever tinkering with until we can make it as rock solid as possible. (The lions and the wolves never got beyond regulating their own individual prides/packs, much less negotiating a predators treaty.)
No one knows whether, in all the vastness of this universe, other life forms exist, or, if so, have evolved to our level or beyond—there's speculation going either way. But when we take our first baby steps on our solar system's other planets, and then bigger leaps through the Milky Way, and finally mega-journeys to other galaxies, we'll export our human morality wherever our vessels touch down. If we do encounter other advanced life forms, we'll likely have the difficulties already familiar from the collision of civilizations in Earth's stormy history. But we can hope these meetings will eventually reach the same result: a success story in which our values prevail over darker outcomes. On the other hand, if it turns out we are indeed alone in the vastness of it all, then the triumph of civilized principles will expand exponentially as long as our universe lasts. If you think my prediction is too optimistic, I reply it's what has already happened, providing a template for its replication in new venues.
So as we begin 2011, let's raise a glass and reflect not on our many problems but instead on our many successes. As I clink my glass to yours, I wish everyone on the planet bigger and better things in the new year.
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
“I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
"Electricity and Cave Man Living," February 4, 2011
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013