“Are We Alone in the Universe?”
This theme was the subject of 6 TED talks in 2009 ( probably not accidentally – the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of Galileo first turning his telescope to the stars ) . I recently heard the presentation given by Dr. Jill Tartar on TED radio hour and it gave me pause for reflection on so many levels. For those who may not know who she is, I have long been an admirer of Dr. Tartar, an American astronomer and former Director of SETI ( Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and a strong and knowledgeable voice in the larger conversation on the search for life elsewhere. And to add a bit of human interest, fans of the movie “Contact” ( based on the book by Carl Sagan) will know her as the passionate astronomer upon whose life and work Jodie Foster’s character was loosely based.
So much of what Dr. Tartar said during the TED talk hit all the right notes as to why we would even want to have a discussion about the larger implications of finding life elsewhere- whether those implications are spiritual, philosophical, political or economic. She reminds us of our common cosmic origins and that “stardust is in our veins”. Most of us will know the phrase ” we are all made of star stuff” – made famous by the late and great astronomer and writer, Carl Sagan. He told us that the carbon in our molecules, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood etc. were all created in the internal furnace of a star and released by stellar explosions into the Universe. What a profoundly beautiful and humbling revelation to consider!
When I researched this phrase and its origins, I found that its history went back even further than the esteemed Dr. Sagan. In 1918, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada gave a speech, part of which seems to touch on – or at least allude to—the spiritual in the following statement:
“If we are made of star stuff…the loftier qualities of our being are just as necessarily constituents of that universal substance of which are made—whatever gods there may be. We are made of universal and divine ingredients and the study of the stars will not let us escape a wholesome and final knowledge of the fact.”
Is he referring to —gasp—God? ( or gods as the quote says) ?? Well– at the very least—some sense of the Divine.
That, I suppose, is left open to interpretation but the concept of common cosmic origins that Dr. Tartar speaks to, is very powerful indeed. For all of my life, it has been of critical importance to regularly look at the stars – not in an analytical, scientific way (although I have dabbled in that as well ) but in a purely aesthetic way. I take an energy from them that I cannot explain in any empirical scientific way. But I have noticed over the course of my life that lengthy periods of the dreaded cloudy skies ( you will hear all amateur astronomers and star gazers wish each other “clear skies ‘ ) leave me feeling out of sorts and what I can only describe as disconnected! This used to amuse my late beloved husband ( who I like to think is somewhere out there amongst the stars winking back at me ) as he watched me anxiously scanning the night skies for that first glimpse of soul calming starlight. And when the skies cleared for a tiny glimpse of a mere fraction of our magnificent Universe, I would feel that I could breathe again! Even as a child, long before I had ever heard of Carl Sagan and understood even basic astronomy, I instinctively felt that connection. I didn’t know–at least not in any scientific way- what I was “made of star stuff” but I always believed that I was part of the stars. Turns out that they are part of me 🙂 🙂
Through the course of her discussion and keeping in mind that we all have the common lineage of stardust in our veins ( as she says) , Dr. Tartar reminds is that we are only one small part of the story of cosmic evolution. She tells us that the discovery that we share cosmic origins with another civilization would —or should–drive home once and for all the common bond of all humans –the ONE tribe that is the human race. Well, this particular insight hit it out of the ball park for me! As much as I have pondered the spiritual implications of such a discovery, I have also pondered the sociological implications. And it is in this area where I think that we would get the biggest bang for our buck for the “common good.” I recently attended a conference on combating racism in our society and commented to a fellow participant that it may take the discovery of life elsewhere to make us realize that there truly is only one race—the human race!
But Dr. Tartar says it best when she tells us that SETI ” can help trivialise the differences among us .” Because, at the proverbial end of the day, it’s all about perspective.
She closes her insightful and thought provoking talk with this:
” If SETI does nothing else but change the perspective of humans on this planet , then it will be one of the most profound endeavours in human history.”
Check out Dr. Tartar’s TED talk at:
http://www/ted.com/talks/jill_tartar_s_ call _to. join_the
Or if I have screwed up that link – and I probably have- you can find her talk on YouTube. Just enter “Are we alone in the Universe by Dr. Jill Tartar.