Bullock: It Took Us 100,000 Years to Grasp the Universe

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Thursday, May 23, 2013
James Bullock, PH.D
Orange County Register

The next time you are outside on a clear, moonless night, take the time to look up. Now think about what you are seeing. Our planet has spun to block out the sun, revealing a vista of the nearby planets, more distant stars, and a milky white band that is the edge of our galaxy.

Enjoy this perspective. It took our species about 100,000 years to put it together.

Thousands of years ago, a very similar view inspired mystical thinkers to interpret the night sky as a window into fundamental truths about the nature of the universe. Here's the thing: They were right. Revered by kings and caliphs, stargazers kept accurate charts of celestial events in hopes that they could foretell the future. Eventually their precise records led to a deeper understanding of the heavens and to the ultimate demise of astrology itself. The best ancient astrologers effectively worked to kill their own profession.

We now know that even the closest stars are too far away to influence our daily lives. Like grains of sand 30,000 feet overhead, there is no direct effect.

Yet the true story is even more profound.

If it were not for the stars, we would not exist. Every atom of oxygen we breathe was created in a star. The carbon in our DNA was forged in stars. When we look up and see points of light twinkling in the night sky, we are witnessing engines of creation. And around many of those distant suns orbit planets, some of which may support life.

Astronomy is often held up as a gateway science, one that naturally inspires young people and exposes them to the power of technical pursuits. This is certainly true. But in addition to inspiring kids, people as a whole benefit from the perspective that astronomy provides: Our sun is just one star out of a hundred billion in our galaxy. There are at least one hundred billion galaxies beyond ours. This idea is humbling, but think of it another way: You are a member of the species that figured it out.

Our universe is just under 14 billion years old. If the universe was the oldest person alive, homo sapiens would be a day-old newborn and the scientific revolution would have begun one minute ago. In that short amount of time, we have mapped a universe of galaxies, discovered black holes and launched a legitimate inquiry into the prevalence of life in the Milky Way.

It's useful to think about the big picture occasionally, and astronomy offers the grandest physical perspective. How would an alien civilization judge us? What are we most proud of as a species? We have about one billion years maximum before the sun grows luminous enough to boil the oceans of our planet. This is the time we have left.

It is unclear if the standard mode of progress can continue over astronomical timescales. Even modest economic growth over the course of a billion years will encounter hard physical limitations.

Maybe, just maybe, we are smart enough to navigate the future toward redefined progress. What will we aim to achieve? One modest goal is that we continue to do what our species does better than any other on our planet: Figure things out.

James Bullock is a UC Irvine professor of physics and astronomy.