Fifty years ago today, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin‘s Vostok spacecraft spent 108 minutes orbiting the earth. Since then, we’ve made footprints on the moon, and sent unmanned vehicles to all 8 planets. At this moment, the New Horizons spacecraft is racing towards the Kuiper Belt and the dwarf planet, Pluto.
We’ve discovered quite a lot in fifty years of space research. For one thing, there’s water everywhere. Mars used to have lots of it. Some moons still have it. The building blocks of life are also everywhere. The truth is, life is probably all over the place, too.
Reality is far, far bigger than we ever imagined. From Edwin Hubble‘s startling discovery of one other galaxy in the universe to his namesake’s observation of millions upon millions of them, we’ve come to realize that we are shockingly insignificant… a pale blue dot in an unremarkable galaxy in an unremarkable cluster in an unremarkable tiny corner of an immense universe.
We’ve learned something else. The knowledge of our shocking insignificance doesn’t really matter. We haven’t descended into anarchy. There have been no mass suicides. No collective ennui. Instead, we’ve invented the internet, the IPhone, and the Google Car. We’ve passed right by the vinyl album and the 8-track, and the cassette, and now our phones carry our 8,000 song library, all available at the slightest touch of a fingertip. We can find our way practically anywhere in the first world by linking with satellites — so many satellites that it’s technically correct to say that Earth has a ring. Getting lost in a new city is a thing of the past.
Also consigned to the past: ”Separate but Equal,” back alley abortions, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, shock treatment, and asbestos poisoning.
Today, if your heart stops working, you can get another one. If your leg gets cut off, you can still run and play sports with a prosthetic. If your eyes are bad, no problem! A few minutes with a laser and a day or two of itching, and they’re better than new. Losing your “male potency”? No reason for celibacy ’til you die. Just pop a pill and you’re good. Live in Montana and want sushi? No problem. We’ll ship it from Japan overnight. Away from your family on business? No problem. Just fire up the laptop and turn on the webcam. It’s almost like being there.
The fact is, the human spirit is far more resilient than many of us have thought. Outside of a few philosophical circles, our discovery of the enormous universe has hardly given us a slight pause. We still live and love and make love and make babies. We still love our families and friends, and we still strive to live the best life we can.
We don’t care that we’re insignificant in the universe. We’re significant to ourselves and those we love, and that’s enough. It’s always been enough, but we had to prove it to ourselves before we could believe it. We don’t need to be the center of the universe. Never needed to be. We don’t need to be God’s special little chosen creatures. We don’t need a higher destiny. Never did.
If I had the time and you, gentle reader had the patience, I would spend a week listing all the things science has given us since the first space flight. Many of them are things you feel like you can’t live without. As medicine goes, you’re probably right. Science has made your life better in real, tangible ways. It has extended your life. Practically every day, you are surrounded by the contributions of science. You couldn’t get away from them if you tried. Science is so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to go more than a few minutes without using something for which you could say, “Thank science I have this!”
There are still lots of things wrong with the world, but that’s OK. There always have been, and the human spirit has always made it through. Activists have always stood up for the oppressed, and good hearted people have always given to those in need.
We’re far from perfect, and that’s OK, too. We all do the best we can, and it’s enough. We’ll never completely eradicate disease, and we’ll never defeat death. But when we live, we do our best to live well, and live richly. We laugh, we cry, we pout, we beg, we smirk, we smile. And it’s all beautiful in its own way, because we are insignificant, and it doesn’t matter. We are lucky enough to be alive in this tiny corner of the universe, and we are lucky enough to be self aware, and to build spaceships, and to leave earth, even if it’s just for 108 minutes.