Sunday, March 9, 2014


Today was the premier of the new Cosmos featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson as host. This show has so much meaning for me from the original show where Carl Sagan was the host. I came late to the original Cosmos, and late to understanding Carl Sagan as a scientist and a communicator of science. Sagan died in 1998 and while I was an avid astronomy lover and wanted to be an astrophysicist when I grew up I didn't entirely appreciate Sagan until years later. In 1998 I was still a believer in a lot of pseudoscience, when I rewatched the show in 2006 it was like I had never seen it. It was an inspiration and a source of wonder for me even though it had been two years since I was studying astrophysics. There are still lines from that show which never fail to give me a sense of wonder. 
“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we've learned most of what we know. Recently, we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” 
We're made of star stuff. That line hits me right in the feels every time I hear it. I can't help it. As deGrasse Tyson puts it; "That makes me want to grab people in the street and say, have you heard this??" Really. 

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” 
My niece is 5 and she recently started asking her mom where people came from and where the Earth came from. I ordered two books for her age group; one on the story of the universe (called you are older than the stars) and the other about evolution (called our family tree I believe). We read the first time the other day and this point, the concept that the calcium in our teeth and the carbon in our nails and the air we believe were made in stars. The idea that the air we breathe was also breathed by the dinosaurs awed her. She stopped helping me read and looked at her nails with such an expression of wonder that I was momentarily unable to speak. This here is the same wonder I feel when I think about that, the same awe. 
“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
At 5 years old she is contemplating her origins. Wondering at the universe. I may never want to have children myself but here is a child that has some sense of how freaking amazing we are. It started off with an innocent child's question to her mother and because I am so determined to help foster her curiosity about science that I went out and got a book to help her understand the answer to this, such an important question, I think that just a little of that wonder and awe has been increased. My whole goal for any influence I might have on this wonderful bit of star stuff that I have been privileged to help grow is to keep that wonder alive. To keep her asking questions when she doesn't know something and to give her all the tools she needs to find out the answers. 
“We are made of stellar ash. Our origin and evolution have been tied to distant cosmic events. The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.”
I am still curious about things, still ask questions, still strive to understand the world and the universe I live in. This has led to some very interesting places over the 27+ years of my life. I've come to a place now where I can, with some reasonable assurance, evaluate my understanding of the universe and come to a conclusion that, if not entirely correct, is at least supported by what evidence there is. That is the process of science and is something I have come to apply to my every day life. 
“And you are made of a hundred trillion cells. We are, each of us, a multitude.”
Think about that. A hundred trillion cells and each of them were forged in the furnaces of stars that are long gone. Stars that existed before our solar system. Some of them were forged before our galaxy existed. Billions of years ago the cells that form each of us were made and we wonder why there is so much still that we don't know.
“The lifetime of a human being is measured by decades, the lifetime of the Sun is a hundred million times longer. Compared to a star, we are like mayflies, fleeting ephemeral creatures who live out their lives in the course of a single day.”
How can we even come close to expecting a complete understanding let alone something as complex as the universe or our bodies? Look at our brain, a mass of grey jelly that is capable of so much and yet has its limitations. I have been lamenting the lack of understanding of the problems with my body and yet when I put it in this perspective it is amazing that we even know as much as we do. In Cosmos Sagan and now Neil deGrasse Tyson put the history of the universe into the space of a year and look at the course of things as the year progresses. The big bang is at midnight January 1 and current time is the last seconds of December. The whole of human history doesn't even take up an hour on that calender. It barely takes up minutes from the first evidence of humans to now. It's infinitesimal. The history of our studying the immune system and the body in a way that makes any sense doesn't even take up a second on that scale. 

“The knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth - the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
(all non attributed quotes are from Carl Sagan in Cosmos.) 

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