It can be intimidating to consider the size, scale, and scope of the universe in space and time, and to compare it to the size and length of our everyday lives. It can make many of our daily concerns seem not merely small and trivial, but utterly irrelevant on the scale of all that happens. If we’re not careful, it can even drive us into nihilism, or something close to it. On a cosmic scale, nothing we do ever really matters or seems at first glance to have an impact. This can be daunting and disheartening.
While I think it’s not useful to go so far as to conclude that everything that happens to everyone is truly meaningless, I do think that taking a larger perspective—even a cosmic perspective—can be both illuminating and useful and might even make us approach life more rationally and more productively.
The universe we can observe began about 13.7 billion years ago—what happened before then, or if such a question has any meaning at all, is unresolved. This is a very large time-scale compared to that of a human lifetime, with its feeble average of about eighty years, even in the most well-run and healthiest of societies. But even that cosmic age pales compared to the possible scale of future time. In principle, future time could be infinite, compared to which any finite number of years is vanishingly, and equally, small; a lifespan of a trillion years is mathematically no closer to eternity than is a lifespan of a microsecond.
But let’s just consider the duration of the universe during which it’s expected to be in principle “habitable,” i.e. in which, given our current understanding of physics, it would be possible for any life as we know it to continue to exist. How long is it before the possible “heat death” of the universe, when all that exists is in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, of maximal entropy, when there is no energy available that can do any useful work at all? This would be after the stars have all died, been absorbed into black holes, and the black holes themselves have decayed by Hawking radiation into particles. Based on the decay time of a supermassive black hole, this would put an upper limit to that heat death time of about a googol, or 10100, years.
That’s a long time. Of course, given what seems to be the nature of “dark energy,” long before that time scale is reached, every other galaxy in the universe will long since have passed over the cosmic horizon, becoming forever unreachable and even unseeable by our descendants, even in principle. Still, even a single galaxy can be a pretty big place to kick around in, and ours will, by the time the sun goes red giant, have “collided” with and started to merge with the Andromeda galaxy. So, for a long time, there’s going to be a lot going on, even just in our little neighborhood.
As for the size of space…well, the visible universe is what we can see in the time light has had to reach us since the beginning of what we locally call time. A naïve view might call this a radius of 13.7 billion light-years, but because space has expanded steadily since the light from the most distant galaxies was generated, the calculated, effective cosmic radius of the visible universe is on the order of 40 billion light years or more. The specifics aren’t really that important; the scale is enormous, in any case. Considering that each light-year is ten trillion kilometers (six trillion miles), having forty billion of them in a line is such a huge distance as to be beyond the intuitive power of brains that evolved on the plains of Africa, on a planet with a circumference of about forty thousand kilometers.
What’s more, the best estimates and understanding we have of cosmology say that not only is actual space much, much larger than everything in the visible universe, but most models seem to imply that space is literally infinite. Infinite space, like infinite time, is something to which even the entire accessible universe is no closer than is the breadth of an atomic nucleus.
When we think about scales this large—particularly when we think about scales that are infinite—it can make our most emotionally-laden concerns seem utterly inconsequential. This need not lead us to despair or to nihilism. It can, instead, give us a sense of perspective, a larger view of reality that makes the stressors of everyday life less viscerally powerful. This can, in many cases, be a good thing.
If someone is unkind to us, or cuts us off in traffic, or is simply inconsiderate, it can arouse powerful emotions, social apes that we are, and this wave of powerful emotion can lead us to take actions that end up doing us, and sometimes other people, real harm. Road rage, for instance, is rarely a productive phenomenon from any rational perspective. But similarly, our very politics could also stand to be less emotionally charged, and if we can take a larger view of the world we might make them so.
In America in recent years, politics has become so polarized, so emotionally charged, so vitriolic and counter-productive, that it can lead one to despair for humanity. Monkeys hurling feces sometimes seem more rational than many of our politicians, or the citizens who become involved in political causes, whether at the local, national, or global scale. When we become so caught up in such concerns that they seem the most important facts in life, our emotions often lead us to counterproductive actions. We rarely make our best decisions when in the grip of powerful passions, anymore than we do our best driving when we’re drunk.
If we could take a step back and look at history, and at the scale of the future and the size of the universe, we could perhaps be a little less hotheaded about local matters—and it’s all local, after all. This is not to say that our political concerns are unimportant, but their importance is parochial. Our social interactions are important, but only at a personal level. In the end, all the matters that today seem so absolutely crucial as the be existential crises will eventually be reduced to nothingness more completely than any works of Ozymandias.
This doesn’t mean that nothing means anything at all, that there’s no point even to trying to do anything. Politics matters, but it matters on a local scale, and compared to the cosmos, everything is local. Humans have the potential, in principle, to give rise to a civilization that could last for billions of years. We also have the potential to cease to exist at any moment, whether through our own actions, or through some astronomical or geological catastrophe that’s beyond our power to predict or to affect.
It’s worth keeping both possibilities in mind when we deal with even important matters, because this can take away a sense of catastrophic emergency and let us proceed with clearer heads. You don’t want heart surgery performed on you or on a loved one by a surgeon who sees that operation as the single most important, most crucial thing in his or her life or the universe; you want a surgeon who cares, certainly, but who does so on an intellectual level, who can be cool and calm, can make rational decisions, with clear judgement, not one keyed up on huge amounts of adrenaline.
The cosmic perspective can make our problems seems small, and sometimes unimportant. Some of these problems will turn out to be unimportant if we look at them dispassionately. At other times, we will see that, for us at least, they are honestly important…but they are also not the end of the world.
The cosmic perspective, in addition to deflating some of our daily crises, can grant us a sense of great possibility. The universe is huge beyond measure, and among the possible futures that lie before us are no doubt ones more wondrous than anything we are even capable of imagining.
I think it would be beneficial if we could approach more of our problems from that cosmic perspective: locally important, to be sure, but on a larger scale evanescent. This can take some of the sting, some of the do-or-die terror and existential angst, out of the most important issues, and give us cooler heads, which are usually better at coming to good, durable solutions than are hot ones. Wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians—and our teachers, our police officers, our factory workers and business owners—approached their work like surgeons, or perhaps like airline pilots: important to those directly involved, and certainly requiring focus and seriousness, but not civilizational identity crises? It matters to avoid crashing a plane, or having a patient die on the operating table, but it’s not useful to react to every setback or conflict as if its cosmically pivotal, to treat each mistake as if it’s the end of the world.
The end of the world is coming. On the scale of the infinite, it is in fact vanishingly near, and always has been. As far as we can tell, there’s nothing we can do to prevent it, at least in the long run. But on a human scale, there’s much to do and to take care of, and so many possibilities to consider that it staggers the imagination. Not everything is possible, but the space of possibilities could still be effectively unlimited.
Keeping a cosmic perspective can help us remember not just how relatively minor so many of our seemingly critical concerns are; it can also remind us that there are more possible ways we can succeed and thrive than we might have considered before, caught up as we so often are in the parochial trap of our primate political urges.
Think about it.