The night before last, walking up to an evening meeting in Takhini, I took a shortcut across a field. There, out from under the glow of street lights, I was bathed for a few minutes in the light of the waxing moon intensified by its reflection off the snow around me. This triggered a glance skyward. Seeing the moon and stars consciously sparked, for a moment or two, a reverie on the immensity of the cosmos we are speeding through.
One estimate from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey places the number of stars in the observable universe at, conservatively,10 sextillion or 10 followed by 22 zeros. A Hubble Space Telescope finding organized these suns into more than 80 billion galaxies like our own Milky Way.
As we probe deeper with new technologies, these numbers can not fail but grow.
Head back down I resumed my journey, poling my way along a track laid down in the snow by other boots. From the macro to the micro level, my body plodding along that path, like yours, contains up to 50 trillion cells. Add to these fantastically large numbers the fact gleaned from a November 30, 2007 Scientific American article that “there are 10 times more bacterial cells in your body than human cells” or possibly another 500 trillion cells. Translate that figure into component atoms and try to imagine seven times 10 to the 27th power or more atoms in our bodies than stars in the observable universe.
The article by Melinda Wenner concludes with, “One thing is for sure: our lives and even our identities are more closely linked to the microbial world than we may think.” Scientists like Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, writing in their book The Plausibility of Life, link our human cells and the bacterial ones we host back to the very first unicellular life forms that emerged in the chemical soup brewing in the primordial oceans of our Earth some 3.5 billion years ago. The core processes of those first life forms, the prokaryotes, are still present at our cellular level.
The elements, like carbon or hydrogen, necessary for life to emerge here came initially from the Big Bang and the subsequent nuclear fusion reactions in the cores of resulting stars. The Physics Central website of the American Physical Society closes the circle by estimating that 93 per cent of our body mass is literally stardust.
Where does this leave us? Jacques Monod, noted French biochemist and 1965 Nobel Prize laureate, argued that “science attacks values” because it undermines the basic stories, myths and philosophies that underpin our “morality, values, duties, rights, prohibitions.” In the 1974 translation of his book Chance and Necessity, Dr. Monod goes on to state that if we accept his proposition then “man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.”
Monod’s cosmic pessimism has its followers for sure, but I am not one of them. We cannot afford to be. We are all linked to every other forms of life and to the universe as a whole, for sure. This should propel us to find meaning, not despair, in the life abounding around us. This should permit us to take the great risks needed to overcome our differences and meet the challenge of building a just, sustainable world.
The Starlight Night, a poem by the English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, begins: “Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!” Hope awakens in us, in stardust.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.