Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Big Ideas (reposted with revision)

Some ideas are transcendent. They can change how we understand ourselves and our place in the universe. The age of the earth (4.6 billion years) and size of the universe (47 billion light years in radius) are such ideas. The Hubble Space Telescope has given us a glimpse of the awesome scale of the universe, as explored in this video (with the added bonus of a Pink Floyd soundtrack).

The study of evolution and the human brain offer similar perspectives. The human tailbone, for example, has always struck me as a transcendent reality. Simple visual illusions can demonstrate the inherent limitations of our senses. Internet tricks like the one excerpted below (while the content was spurious, scrutinized here and ridiculed here) suggest the constant, unconscious work of our minds.

“Cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid.”

All of this points to our limited understanding of the world and to the wonder of discovery. I’m reminded of this Martin Amis interview, “…it’s incredibly evident that we are nowhere near intelligent enough to understand the universe. We are a dozen Einsteins away. It’s pathetic. I feel very sorry for cosmologists. Only a couple of years ago I was told by one, Lee Smolin, he said they had just discovered that the universe is not only expanding but that this process is accelerating. For us, he said, that’s like throwing your car keys in the air and them not coming down.”

That captures the battle nicely. We are deeply ignorant of the universe, perhaps hopelessly so. And yet we struggle to understand, to advance knowledge, to make life better. We are small and we live on a pale blue dot, but we aspire.

It is estimated that 99.9% of all species that ever lived on the planet are now extinct. Our own species has been pushed to the brink and nearly joined the list. I think it’s worthwhile to spend some time on these lost species and consider their existence and contemplate their meanings. They include all manner of tiny and enormous, incredible and bizarre things. From the T-rex to the Dodo to smallpox, forgotten species have much to say about the history of earth and mankind.