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What void?

“Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars We humans have seen the atoms which constitute all of nature and the forces that sculpted this work and we, who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, have begun to wonder about our origins star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring.

We are one species.

We are star stuff harvesting star light.”
–Carl Sagan

We were asked recently how we fill the void in our lives left by the lack of religion. We don’t see it as a void, as a lack, at all. We are sustained by our curiosity, our interest in other people, our relationships with family and friends, just as most humans are. We live knowing that we have one life, that we need to make the best of it, and we both think it is important to have a positive influence on the lives of the people around us.

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given last week by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a well known astrophysicist. The talk he gave was about looking at the world through the lens of scientists. He went through several views, including a chemist, a biologist, a mathematician, and, of course, an astrophysicist. Each of the views showed the world in a different way.

Chemists see the world in terms of atoms, molecules, bonds, and interactions. They see the world as a combination of elements. The history of chemistry is intertwined with the history of the world. Elements were primarily discovered by countries with money and power that set great store by science and supported the scientists. Some elements were named after planets, some after places, and some, like Technetium, were named because of what they are – “tech” means “man made”, and this element does not appear in nature.

Biologists look at the world in terms of life, how we fit in, and how incredibly small a part we play, as well as how complex and fascinating life can be. They’ve recently found organisms that not only survive but flourish in extreme conditions, everything from ice to volcanic heat. When you look at a diagram of the tree of life, you can see the huge diversity of organisms on our planet. What was even more amazing to me is that this diagram only shows about three thousand species. Just to be clear, that is out of about nine million species that could have been shown. We are one tiny branch of that tree. The diversity around us is astounding and beautiful.

Would you like to know how to make a mathematician twitch? Take one onto an elevator where the floors go 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15. Mathematicians want the world to make sense, want precision. In much of Europe, the ground floor is zero, the first floor is 1, and the basement is -1. That makes sense. Some of the people quoted by Dr. Tyson were things like a Congressman saying “I’ve changed my views 360 degrees on that subject!” Every day, walking through the world, experiencing the headlines and silliness that so many of us spout, mathematicians are subjected to inaccuracies and assumptions that are not reflected by reality. How about “Eighty percent of the passengers who survived had studied the locations of the exit doors on takeoff”? The correct answer to this is “So what?” We can’t ask the dead people. Maybe one hundred percent of the dead people studied the locations of the exit doors, but there is no way to know that now. Mathematics can be used to slant how people perceive the world, and that is deeply frustrating for those people who really know what the numbers mean and, more to the point, what they don’t mean. Mathematicians see beauty in numbers, in order and in chaos, in the patterns surrounding us.

Astrophysicists look at the world as a tiny speck. We are a mote, surrounded by billions of stars in the sky, more galaxies than I, at least, can imagine. They see the possibilities of all of those stars, many of which have planets called “Goldilocks” planets (planets that are just right), which are planets which are earth-like enough that life could develop there.

Every one of us is made up of pieces of stars. Every molecule, every atom of our beings used to be part of a star that exploded and provided the building blocks for more stars and planets. Some of those eventually became the goo that held the beginnings of life on earth.

How do we fill the void left by religion? How is there a void? We are surrounded by billions of stars, other galaxies, all of which are made up of the same stuff we are. We have families and friends who are very dear to us. We have jobs that make a difference in the world. We are good, caring, loving people, and we are in a stable relationship. We enjoy each other and the life we share.

What void? There is no void, for us. We are made of star stuff. We are part of the universe in a very real way.