It’s cool outside. You’re not sure of the actual temperature but you think to yourself that you may need a jacket soon. No matter, it feels good to finally get some fresh air. You take a look around and start to realize your surroundings. You watch the leaves of the trees shiver against the backdrop of a thousand twinkling stars. There’s a slight wind creeping across the dew wilted grass as the sound of nothing starts to creep its way into your ears. Rubbing your arms, you tilt your head back and are startled by how many stars there are. Were there always this many stars? You can’t remember the last time you actually took a moment to really look around you and notice where you are. Of course, you’re at home in your backyard – but now you’re starting to notice where you really are. With all the stuff happening at work, trying to remember if you paid your car payment, worrying what the weather will be like for the barbecue you’re throwing this weekend, it’s too easy to forget your place on Earth. It’s too easy to overlook your place in nature itself. In today’s society, you suddenly realize how easy it is to become overworked and overwhelmed as you watch the fireflies make their own virtual galaxy in your very own backyard. You’ve never really thought about it before, but now as you look up at the breathtakingly blackness of space, you wonder what all those twinkling lights are.
Thinking back to your grade school science class, you know they’re all just stars just like our Sun, but way farther away. You remember why you never really got into all that astronomy stuff. Stars, to you, are boring! You look up and that’s all you see. Where are the colorful glowing nebula’s from the pictures you’ve seen on the internet? Where are the giant planets with golden rings or the dazzling comets streaking through the sky you hear so much about but have never really seen. They say we live in a galaxy with billions of stars, each with a possibility of planets like our own which may harbor life, but you’ve never seen one. It’s hard to relate to something that for all practical purposes to you, doesn’t really exist! Well, you’ve seen the pictures and trust the scientists and know such things do exist. So since you have the evening to yourself and just want to relax, you pour yourself a glass of wine, lean back in your folding chair, look up at the night sky and do a little daydreaming – or nightdreaming, as it were.
Where to start? You wiggle around in your chair a bit to get a little more comfortable. As you move your feet across the ground you think about how the Earth is a planet too, just like the pictures you see of Mars or Venus. You think about Mars and how far away it is and remember the stories of Martians and aliens, and you can’t help but think that all of those things are something completely different from Earth. There’s something inherently different about Earth than all these other ‘space objects.’ But there isn’t! You can imagine aliens coming to Earth thinking how wildly different and ‘alien’ Earth is, just as if we visited another world like Mars or even a planet in another solar system. You start to realize that Earth is a planet just like all the other ones from the photos. You stand up and look out over the horizon and imagine the Earth for what it is: a giant rock. You feel this rock beneath your feet. You jump up and down and feel the immensity, the solidness. In your mind you can see this enormous rock floating in the blackness of space, and you’re actually standing on it! You are, right now, standing on a bonafide planet! A planet in space – Spaceship Earth. Smiling to yourself, you start to realize you’re not as disconnected as you thought. Maybe your planet isn’t as boring as you imagined, and what’s more, you get to be a part of it. This is kind-of fun! Lets have another drink shall we?
Your mind is set on these planets for now so you continue with the thought. If the Earth isn’t unlike the other planets, then the other planets must not be much different than Earth. You wonder what it would be like to visit them. Since Mars has been in the news lately, you imagine yourself roaming the base of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in our solar system. It would feel much like it would here on Earth except for the obvious lack of breathable atmosphere, but that’s just details and you’re daydreaming – there’s no reason to get too picky. Disregarding semantics, you walk around the foothills of this mountain, kicking the dirt, picking up rocks, taking it all in like you would here on Earth on a hiking trip to Appalachia. As you look out over the Martian horizon it dawns on you; all these far-too-distant, ‘non-existent’ places are real! You could actually go to these places. They’re not just pretty pictures someone created on their computer, but actual places you could visit – just like the pictures of Old Faithful in Yellowstone or the canals in Venice that you’ve never been to but always dreamt of going. They’re no more real, or un-real, than those places here on Earth. You breathe deep, sit back down in your chair, and are completely engulfed in your own world of imagination and realization.
What else is out there? You notice something vaguely odd that you’ve never really seen before; a band of light stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon. It almost looks like a river of stars across the sky… almost like someone had spilled milk over the entire dome of the night sky. That’s it! It’s the Milky Way! You remember being taught our galaxy’s name growing up and now here you are all these years later, finally seeing it for yourself. Once you realize what it is, it’s breathtaking. You bring up images you’ve seen on the internet or in books of those grand spiral galaxies and their spinning arms in your mind and it finally hits you. You’re inside one of those galaxies right now. You are standing on a planet, circling one of a billion stars, looking out from the inside of a spectacularly huge galaxy; a structure so grand it’s almost beyond human comprehension. You almost feel like a space traveler from a movie gazing out across the vast landscape before your adventure. You get goosebumps because you know it’s entirely possible. If you really wanted to, and humans had the technology and capacity to take on such a quest, you would be on your way to the stars ready to explore just like Magellan was a few hundred years ago. You see him standing on the shores of the Atlantic mentally preparing for his round the world voyage with the wind in his face just as you stand here now on the shores of Earth, looking out across the abyss. These things are starting to make sense now. The pictures are starting to come to life. They really aren’t just cool photographs of imaginary places, but of something completely real and attainable. You’re feeling more a part of nature than you have in a while, and you haven’t even left your backyard!
You’re starting to understand your place in creation. And as you sip your wine, you close your eyes to contemplate your new discoveries, something still just doesn’t feel right. Sure, everything you’ve recently realized is astounding and welcoming, but it’s still ‘nature’ and you’re still ‘you.’ You feel more a part of it than your mind will let you. Your logic is saying that you’re a human that is alive, and that rock you’ve been holding between your fingers is not alive. You’re made of completely different stuff… right? Maybe it’s just the wine talking but maybe the Native Americans are right and we’re all a part of nature, coming from the ground and then returning. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Maybe we really are more a part of nature than we ever let ourselves be. It feels slightly embarrassing to think like this since you’ve always been a straight thinking business person bent on the facts rather than a New Age tree-hugger talking about ‘oneness.’ Well, what do the scientists say? Maybe they can reconcile your thoughts and feelings. Again, you think back to those science classes you took growing up. Those boring afternoons in biology class, those ridiculously hard physics tests you took, trying to memorize the Periodic Table of the Elements in chemistry… ‘Why in the world would anyone need to know this stuff?’ you thought at the time.
Ok, let’s think about this. Your biology teacher said that your body is made of cells. But what about plants? What about trees, mushrooms, and jellyfish? Come to think of it, all living things are made of cells you conclude. Well, you’ll take that as a start to your “oneness.” So if all living things are made of cells, what makes a cell a cell? Flashes of drawings of cells you made back in grade school start popping into your head. It’s hard to remember details but you know your drawings looked like a round blob with a… what’s the word? Right, a nucleus in the middle. With all the new breakthroughs happening almost every day in genetics, you know your DNA is what makes you you, and that your DNA lives in the nucleus of your cells. Genetics is almost inescapable in this day and age. Every time you turn on your TV or even open a newspaper it seems like another new DNA discovery or finding is announced. That reminds you in fact of the piece you read just this morning about how humans share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. That is, 98% of our DNA exactly matches the DNA of a chimp. The article went on to prove that no less than 50% of our DNA matches a banana’s of all things! It only now just hit you though; all living things are made of the same building blocks and we all use the same instruction manual to put us all together. The Evolution Theory you always took with a grain of salt finally comes together for you in a blinding instant – it makes sense now. It’s just far too coincidental that all living things share the same exact make-up to not be related to each other. The biologists were right when they said we all share a common ancestor. The first life form must have started out, if nothing else, with DNA, or at least some form of it. The first spark of life then went on to become every living thing you’ve ever loved. Wow, that’s amazing. Talk about the Garden of Eden! That warm feeling of ‘connectedness’ is really starting to sink in now. We’re not really alone are we? How much different are you than your pet dog? You both breathe, eat, sleep, etc… but maybe on a more important note, fear, play, hate, and love.
Well, at least biologically you feel in good company, but what about this rock you’ve been rolling around in your hand this whole time? Is it important to feel connected to rocks and dirt? Not necessarily. But you know that Space is an awfully big place and as far as you know, dust, rocks and gas are the only things out there. So what are dust, rocks, and gas made of? ‘They’re made of atoms’ you say. The basic fundamental building blocks of anything and everything are atoms – everyone knows that right? Well what kind of atoms are there? Are there different kinds? If so, how many different kinds are there? Chemistry has never been your strong subject, most of that stuff just goes right over your head. But who could forget that giant wall-sized poster of the Periodic Table of the Elements in Chemistry class? You know it had a bunch of numbers and language on it that you didn’t understand and frankly, didn’t care to understand. But it’s the Periodic Table of the Elements; it is a table of the elemental stuff that makes up everything in the universe. It’s a table of atoms. Whatever the table actually showed doesn’t really matter to you other than the fact that there wasn’t many different atoms on there. Well, it doesn’t seem like there’s that many relative to the abundance of different materials that you can think of off hand. I mean, there’s everything from apples, axes, and apes to zinc, zippers, and zebras and everything in between that make up our universe. How can that small number of atoms make up the diversity of everything in existence? It must be how they’re put together you think to yourself, but that’s something you’ll have to google later. “What is a molecule?” You can only imagine the search results you’ll get from that! At any rate, that rock in your hand is made of the same things as your hand: atoms. ‘Not so much different indeed’ you say to the rock as it falls back to the Earth where it came from.
You then realize that rock will become sand, and that sand will mix with dead trees and the like and become dirt. Grass will grow and live off that dirt while the cows eat it. We’ll skin the cows for leather to make wallets in which you’ll hold your money. The money was the tree that gave those cows shade and that will also keep you protected when you’re put in the ground in your wooden casket. Protected of course until it, and you, disintegrate back into the soil that will eventually become that rock again. The author, Chet Raymo, put it very eloquently when he said that “(y)ou can never step in the same river twice, said Heraclitus. Everything flows. We are a river of atoms – we coalesce, we effervesce, we disperse. A human soul is an eddy in a whirlwind. Enjoy it while you can.”
So with astronomy you’ve shown that those far off places you could only dream of aren’t so far off after all. With biology you’ve proved that we’re the same as all other living things. With chemistry you’ve proved that all living things are fundamentally not any different than non-living things. And if you didn’t have that last glass of wine, you could probably figure out with physics and the most famous equation of all, E=mc2, that matter (atoms) and energy are one in the same. You could recall what the letters actually stand for since you won that bet against your friend all those years ago, and for some reason you never forgot: the E stands for energy, m stands for mass, and c squared is, well… some huge number. Energy equals mass multiplied by a big number. So in other words, a little mass is the same thing as a lot of energy. Energy equals matter. Matter, the “stuff” of the universe is nothing more than slowed down energy… basically frozen energy. Astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, life, rocks, matter, energy… we’re all the same. We are all connected. Not bad for a night under the stars with a few glasses of wine!