Posts Tagged ‘antibiotics’

SERMON: “Space Between My Ears” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Detail of the asteroid in the Tombaugh Elementary School murals. By Bob Diven.

It’s been an unusually busy Summer of work over at my “day job” (that of an independent artist).  I just completed about 1400 square feet of mural for a local elementary school (the school is named after the well-known astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh — “the discoverer of Pluto”).  Now I know just enough about astronomy to know that any attempt to show planets, stars, spacecraft and such in any realistic distance relationship would be madness to an artist attempting to create a visually arresting work of art (even the “near” objects in our own solar system are so damned far away it is mind-boggling).  So I just put things where I wanted them: some extremely (and dramatically) “close up”, and others not-so-close up.

I’m expecting criticism from actual astronomers, but that’s okay.  I understand there is a difference between the “art” I created and what I might actually see if I were able to travel across the incredible distances of space.

But — like everything else about our existence — we don’t actually picture the universe as it is (vast distances filled mostly with, well, “dark stuff”).  When asked to think of the universe, pictures of planets, asteroids, nebulae and star clusters immediately pop into my head.  My mind goes to the details of familiar objects (assisted in no small measure by the fabulous images our national space program has supplied for us to feast on over the last forty years).

The truth I’m after here is that we are surrounded at every turn by realities on a scale that can freeze up our mammalian brains (like shaking an old pinball machine into “tilt” mode).  The latest to challenge my brain is the fact that our planet does not (according to a renowned planetary geologist I know) have the resources to fuel a spacecraft that could possibly reach any other planet that is (potentially or actually) home to life like ours.  And conversely (since we must assume that other planets would be similarly limited, made as they are of the same cosmically-available building materials that our own Earth is) there is not another planet in the entire universe that can reach us.

In short — we may not actually be alone in the universe, but for all practical purposes, we are all alone in the universe.

And I could ask which is more mind-blowing: the fact that there is a statistical probability that there are other planets similarly placed and gifted like ours out there that could have evolved life?  Or that we will never, ever know about it?

I think about these sorts of things on a regular basis.  (Not all the time, of course, as my brain is as limited as any other human’s, and can only go so far afield before it encounters severe discomfort).  But each time I pick up an interesting rock, I realize that just about any random pebble I might kick off the sidewalk has enough history in it to disprove any young-earth creation theory, and just about every religious creation myth.

Our problem is not a lack of evidence for evolution and the scientific theories regarding biology, the big bang, and everything else: our problem is that we are surrounded by, immersed in, and incapable of escape from the evidence of our ancient and natural origins.  (As a rather glaring and profound example of “evolution in action”, consider the recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control that the Gonorrhea bacterium has been developing resistance to the antibiotics we have be using to treat it!)

Perhaps it is because the evidence has always been with us that we can somehow choose to continue to be blind to it.  We have had our entire history to make up stories about the occasional randomly shaped rock formation or cloud (and have had just the right kind of brains to believe our own stories).  Religion and mystical thought have been with us for as long as we can remember.  Science — true experimental, methodical science — however, has been with us for only a short time, and though we should be praising it for what it has finally revealed to us about the things that concern us most (where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here), instead science is too often treated as a blasphemous crusade led by greedy, godless villains in lab coats.

We humans are brilliant idiots.  We are clearly the most clever and innovative animals to ever populate the earth, yet in some ways we “deserve” whatever eventual extinction awaits us.  But then, we also “deserve” whatever life we have while we have it.  After all, each of us that is here today is a survivor of the eons-long struggle for existence that began with the very first living organism on the planet.  Within your DNA is that unbroken thread that has stretched through millions — hundreds of millions — of years, and is living and reproducing and mutating and adapting still.

And that knowledge alone is enough to blow another circuit in the brain.

A wide view of the North wall of the Tombaugh Elementary School Murals. By Bob Diven.

In reality, the vastness of space is no more difficult to fully comprehend than is the biology of our own bodies.  Both are impossible.  But we can achieve a certain understanding if we’ll try.  If we can open our brain up a little bit to ponder things (that we know from the start we will not completely grasp) we can, eventually, come to terms with our place in the cosmos.

There are vast swaths of our own galaxy that we will never penetrate with telescope or spacecraft.  There are questions about our own animal evolution that will never be answered (we are never going to amass and confirm, for instance, a collection of all of the fossilized animals in our direct line — and anyone who insists on these kinds of results from science is a fool).  The fact is that we know enough —  no: we know way more than enough — to see what we truly are: evolved animals on a small planet that is off in one corner of a single galaxy swimming in a sea of other galaxies in a universe that is still expanding from an explosion that began billions of years ago.

That is enough wonder for me.  Next to that reality, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God is just, well, not worth considering.  The creation stories of religion lose all of their explanatory appeal when compared with the reality of our actual “creation”, and have therefore long ago lost any scientific credibility (though they retain a certain narrative and historical richness).

As for me, I choose to live a life enriched by the knowledge that so many scientists have worked so hard to bring to me.  I don’t care that every experiment has not produced perfect results, or that scientists don’t always get it right, because the process of science is valid and is, it turns out, the best thing we humans have come up with to determine reality.  And even that very human-scale achievement blows my mind.  Again and again.

t.n.s.r. bob