In naked darkness we travel,
in naked endless seas.
New untamable lands,
new dreamy travels,
wonders we never dared imagine,
eternal unfulfilled desires wait to be fulfilled.
We inhabit an enormous galaxy consisting of at least 200 billion stars. Nearly since the dawn of time, for 14 billions years, it wanders the endless dark, its sparkling arms rotating around its luminous centre. Like a flying saucer it travels and travels with no destination set and with it so do we. But it’s not a lonely traveler. There are relatives everywhere, close and distant. Other galaxies traveling and trailing their destiny through our known dark sea. And anywhere we turn to look we discover even more of these relatives in this huge galactic family. The total number of galaxies in the cosmos is an unimaginable 100 billion. But our heart is not large enough to bear such wealth… so I return to our familiar territory; our own galaxy and that miniscule corner where our solar system lies. That little corner we can call “home”. The corner where Earth is, the planet that was meant to have such a different fate than all the other planets of the solar system. This would be the planet where the children of the stars would be born, the planet that would become home to the wonder of life.
The epic of life on Earth began 4.5 billion years ago with the formation of our solar system from a nebula. The moment the first living cell appeared on Earth the path was set. In time with small, but steady steps life evolved from simple to even more complex forms, more and more capable of surviving in this inhospitable world. The journey would sometimes end smothered in the adverse conditions and the difficulties of survival, or at times chance would lead it to triumphant victories. Even more important than chance was the mechanism already entrenched in life: Natural Selection. Through this process the descendants were more able to survive than the parents and gradually, through millions of years, we arrived at organisms that appear at first glance perfectly adapted to their environment. One could say that it is remarkable how harmoniously animals coexist with their environment, as if a very capable architect placed everything so it fits just right. In reality this image is just the culmination of a struggle that lasted billions of years, from the first organic compounds to man. We, the beings on this planet had to fight hard from the dawn of our existence in order to manage to adapt and survive. We sculpted our bodies, our senses, our organs and our brains so the wild environment would appear hospitable and familiar. We have every right to be proud of our ancestors and most of all for the gift they imparted us through their wondrous struggle: the right to call Earth “Mother”.
All life forms on Earth today are more or less related to each other. There are no lower or imperfect forms of life. Evolution through natural selection has lasted the same amount of time for all beings on the planet. The differences between the species are due to the fact that each adapted to the special circumstances it encountered during this long process. In its attempt to adapt to its environment a species of mammal, a species of ape, was forced to evolve a form of consciousness a bit different from the rest of the mammals. A form of consciousness that many generations later would lead to philosophers, artists and scientists. It is man who, in contrast to other animals, wonders about the “why” and the “how” of this world and tries to understand it. We learned to survive this way. We explored our environment seeking answers to the endless questions our mind gave birth to. We keep doing the same. We have an eternal lust for knowledge, eternally enamoured with the unknown towards which we travel.
Man and his contemporary animals of this planet are, as a matter of fact, the most complex structures in our known universe, since it took us 14 billions years to reach our present form; the exact age of the Universe. We rest at the top of the evolutionary chain of the world as we know it. It is likely that we share this position with other beings, unknown to us, living on other planets somewhere in the Universe. However, knowing how rare life is, how difficult it is to arise and evolve and, mainly, how long it’s required for a conscious being like man to evolve, we cannot but be awed by our very existence.
Truly, all these lead to an idea that gives me goosebumps from head to toe. A philosophical paradox or a grand philosophical truth lies before our eyes. The Universe, by means of the Earth, after 14 billion years produced a life form, self-conscious and self-aware. A life form whose main goal throughout history has been to explain the world and conquer knowledge. It sounds odd, but we are the Universe analyzing itself, we are the very stuff of stars that has matured, gained consciousness and wonders why it exists. The scientist exploring the Universe and its properties is in fact trying to understand himself. As the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once wrote “I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself…” And our ancient desire to explain the stars and space seems like sweet nostalgia, as if we want to return to where we came from and get to know the primordial womb that gave birth to our existence.
All this knowledge about the structure and the age of the Universe and the appearance and evolution of life on our planet is the achievement of the past 200 years. It is the first time in the history of mankind that we reach such a degree of self-consciousness/knowledge of the cosmos. Philosophies and religions of old pant in order to adapt to the new image of the Universe as it is being unravelled by science and the discoveries of mental giants of our civilization. At this crucial crossroads we can no longer afford to conserve such old ideas that keep our wings folded.
Our life lasts but an infinitesimal moment compared to the age of the Universe. “Life eternal” has been for sure an enticing idea for millennia. But now we’ve matured. We can look truth straight in the eye without feeling paralyzing terror. And if the thought that life comes and goes may seem sad and depressing at times, then we should read the thoughts of the famous biologist Richard Dawkins to fill our hearts with optimism: “We all die and we are the lucky ones. Most people will never die, because they will never be born…” Indeed, DNA research has shown that we comprise a very small percentage of the people that could have been. According to Dawkins the number of all possible DNA combinations is larger than the number of the grains of sand in the Sahara desert. If we take into account all the countless events, all the details, that led to our conception and birth, then our existence truly seems miraculous!
Our presence here is such an unlikely event that we probably don’t have the mental capacity to fully comprehend in all its glory. If one adds to this the complex phenomenon of human consciousness, a product of billion of years of cosmic and terrestrial evolution, we’re not just lucky to exist against all odds, but to be part of a species barely 200,000 years old and endowed with the unique ability to discover the world around it, philosophize about its existence and read these very lines.
With these thoughts in mind I look outside my window at the small, busy streets of the city. Suddenly the people walking the streets of Athens seem completely different. What I took for granted is now remarkable and unique. “Carpe Diem” -seize the day- resounds almost deafening, louder than ever. How many of the restless passers-by realize that? How many live as if they recognize how really unique is this moment they’ve been granted, their only moment in billions of years of cosmic evolution? Most of us enter a routine and live that way till the day we die. Like the cogs in an automaton we follow the musts of everyday life without ever raising our heads to see the truth, without wondering about the “why” of our existence. And the saddest thing is that we think that our little, insignificant and socially predetermined routine is the most important thing in the world. But if one sees the universe in its totality and, most importantly, when one realizes mankind’s place in it, then everything takes a new shape, novel and optimistic. It is enough to recognize that we’ve been granted this wonderful chance to be part of this cosmic feast, part of this wondrous world which keeps amazing us even more as our understanding of it increases. Every doubt, every postponement seems ridiculously absurd. This moment is truly ours and we should live it to the fullest, we must seize every second of it.
And if our death or the death of a beloved are notions that break our hearts and fill us with terror, let us console ourselves because “what once was cannot cease to have been”*. This is the only truth that will live on throughout the centuries to come: “We were!” Even for an infinitesimal moment in time we became part of the amazing phenomenon of life, in this grandiose fiesta of senses, where the Universe gets to know itself.
I make an attempt to visualize the philosophy of an ideal, wise and peaceful humanity that has survived against all odds and has left behind for good the danger of self-annihilation… When men will offer each other happiness like brothers and live every single moment. Captains of knowledge, with sails spread wide they will sail to conquer new untamable lands and witness wonders we never even dared to dream of. Eternal, unfulfilled desires will be sated as the children of the stars will get to know the world that gave birth to them.
The time has come. The Universe is conscious. The greatest journey of introspection begins…
*The verse “what once was cannot cease to have been”
is from the poem “Summers of old” (“Παλιά Καλοκαίρια”) by Lena Pappa.