Of the many (many!) valuable lessons offered in Carl Sagan’s 13-part series “Cosmos”, the one that’s stuck with me, and the one which made me begin the “Anglofilmia” project with this show, is the idea that we humans are both completely insignificant in the long view of the universe, and that the finite, fecund duration of our lives on earth is what gives life its meaning.
This existential self-awareness is, for me, what makes looking at the horizon of the ocean, or gazing into the inky black sky, especially pleasurable. It’s what gave me shivers when I read the lines in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
But even though learning this lesson as a child has fundamentally shaped my beliefs and my interests (especially my fondness for time travel literature!), no one can say it better than Carl Sagan himself:
“The long, collective enterprise of science has revealed a universe some 15 billion years old: the time since the explosive birth of the cosmos, the Big Bang.
The cosmic calendar compresses the local history of the universe into a single year.
If the universe began on January 1st, it was not until May that the Milky Way formed. Other planetary systems may have appeared in June, July and August…but our sun and Earth, not until mid-September.
Life arose soon after.
Everything humans have ever done occurred in that bright speck at the lower right of the cosmic calendar.
The Big Bang is at upper left in the first second of January 1st. Fifteen billion years later is our present time, the last second of December 31st.
Every month is 1 and a quarter billion years long. Each day represents 40 million years. Each second stands for some 500 years of our history…the blinking of an eye in the drama of cosmic time.
At this scale, the cosmic calendar is the size of a football field, but all of human history would occupy an area the size of my hand.
We’re just beginning to trace the long and tortuous path which began with the primeval fireball and led to the condensation of matter: gas, dust, stars, galaxies, and, at least in our little nook of the universe, planets and life, intelligence and inquisitive men and women.
We’ve emerged so recently that the familiar events of our recorded history occupy only the last seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
Some critical events for the human species however began much earlier…minutes earlier. So we change our scale from months to minutes.
Down here, the first humans made their debut around 10:30 p.m. on December 31st. And with the passing of every cosmic minute — each minute 30,000 years long — we began the arduous journey towards understanding where we live and who we are.
11:46, only 14 minutes ago, humans have tamed fire.
11:59:20, the evening of the last day of the cosmic year — the 11th hour, the 59th minute, the 20th second — the domestication of plants and animals began, an application of the human talent for making tools.
11:59:35, settled agricultural communities evolved into the first cities.
We humans appear on the comic calendar so recently that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
In the vast ocean of time which this calendar represents all our memories are confined to this small square.
Every person we’ve ever heard of lived somewhere in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves. Everything in the history books happens here, in the last 10 seconds of the cosmic calendar.
We on Earth have just awakened to the great oceans of space and time from which we have emerged. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.
We have a choice:
We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.
What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence, and our knowledge of the cosmos.”