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Elise Patkotak: For a speck in the cosmos, humanity does pretty well

Elise Patkotak

I don't know about you, but I am absolutely hooked on the new "Cosmos" series with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the minutiae of daily life that we forget to look up in amazement at the glory of which we are but one tiny bit of cosmic dust. This show takes our minds out of the mundane and into the amazing.

Part of what happens when watching this show is the dawning realization that this earth and the humanity on it are neither the center of the universe nor of any particular impact on it. Before you've even left our solar system, the earth fades into a tiny speck. When we traverse our galaxy, the earth becomes a hard-to-spot little white dot amid millions of other white dots. From that perspective, we are simply not that special.

But as I watched this show, I realized that humanity is very special if only because we are conscious enough and intelligent enough to be exploring a universe that should dwarf us into incomprehension. Instead, we build machines that allow us to see back to the beginning of time. We build crafts that can fly farther than most of our imaginations can stretch. We take data transmitted from hundreds of millions of miles away and create digestible pieces of information that expand our understanding of both our distant past and our probable future. Humanity may be viewed by size as an inconsequential organism on an even more inconsequential planet in a vast and uncharted universe. However, the fact that we can even express that concept while pushing the boundaries of our knowledge to such extreme edges tells me that humanity is not inconsequential. In fact, we are pretty damned amazing.

Not that long ago we thought we were the center of the universe. A little more than 100 years ago, we'd just figured out how to fly. About fifty years ago, the first human to ever escape the bounds of Earth's gravity soared into space using a computer with less power than your iPhone. Now we have a spacecraft that is rapidly approaching the outermost limits of our universe and still sending back data long after it should have stopped.

Humanity gets a bad rap here on earth for all the right reasons. We tend to be a violent species. We seem to be unable to live anywhere without despoiling the place we call home. We kill in the name of a "merciful" god and start wars for some pretty silly reasons. Our bad reputation is understandable. But we also cure diseases, ease suffering and bring water to arid places. While oil may ultimately decide who we think does and doesn't deserve our attention to their human rights issues -- yes in Iraq, not so much with North Korea -- the fact that human rights are on the table at all is pretty amazing.

At one point, Tyson looks directly at the camera and states that the theory of evolution is an undeniable scientific fact. That he makes this statement in the same episode that shows how organisms developed eyes, along with the variety of eyes that evolved, just makes the statement all the more powerful. Evolution is all around us if we but open our eyes and brains to it.

Tyson is a worthy inheritor of Carl Sagan's mantle. He tells the story of our world and its place in the vast cosmos simply, with full dignity accorded the many evolutionary dead ends that had to exist in order for us to develop into the humans we are today.

Not that many generations ago, our grandparents and great-grandparents stared at the sky in wonder, unable to comprehend its vastness, unable to discern our place in that starry firmament. Today, thanks to people like Tyson who are not only brilliant enough to understand the cosmos but have the language skills to transmit that knowledge to those of us who will never have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, our generation and generations yet to come will stare up at that starry night with a much greater understanding. We will comprehend our smallness in its vastness with an even greater appreciation for the species that was able to pierce that darkness and tell us what was on the other side.

Elise Patkotak's latest book, "Coming Into the City," is available at AlaskaBooksandCalendars.com and at local bookstores.


Elise Patkotak
commentBy ELISE PATKOTAK