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Sir Martin Rees on our understanding of the universe

“I would say that although the earth is very small, it is one of the most important places in the galaxy. It is the one place where we know that something very complicated has evolved. That process has led from simple life by Darwinian evolution to creatures like ourselves, able to understand our origins and contemplate the wonder and the mysteries of the universe. We should not be impressed by sheer size but should also admire the intricate complexity of all the things on the earth. And the most complicated things that we know about are human beings. (…)

Q: You have said that there might have been more than just one Big Bang. How could that be?

Sir Rees: Of course it is just a speculation. But it is certainly possible, indeed likely, that there was a lot more to physical reality than the volume which we can probe with our telescopes. And almost everyone will agree that there many galaxies which are beyond the limits of what we can see with our telescopes. A few hundred years ago, nobody would have believed that our sun is not unique or that our galaxy is not the only galaxy. Thinking about the properties of the Big Bang is thus an entirely legitimate speculation. (…)

I don’t see it as an humiliation. We should not be impressed by size. What is important is complexity. Even an insect can be more impressive than a star because it is more complex. New discoveries about the universe should not take away the realization of our own complexity. (…)

Q: Is religion still a concept helping us to understand the hugeness and the variety that surrounds us? (…)

I think the universe revealed by modern science is a more wonderful place to live in than the rather more limited and constricted view that people had of the universe in the past. (…)” “
— Sir Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, former President of the Royal Society, "There is Always Room for Mysteries", The European, 04.10.2010 (Illustration)

"A man can’t know where he is on the Earth except in relation to the moon or a star. Astronomy comes first; land maps follow because of it. Just the opposite of what you’d expect. If you think about it long enough, it will turn your brain inside-out. A here exists only in relation to a there, not the other way around. There’s this only because there’s that; if we don’t look up, we’ll never know what’s down. Think of it, boy. We find ourselves only by looking to what we’re not. You can’t put your feet on the ground until you’ve touched the sky.” “
Paul Auster, American author known for works blending absurdism, existentialism, crime fiction and the search for identity and personal meaning, Effing in Moon Palace, Viking Press, 1989
Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.
Kurt Vonnegut, American writer (1922-2007), The Sirens of Titan, Dell, 1959
I confess that I shall expound many things differently from my predecessors, although I shall do so thanks to them, and with their aid, for it was they who first opened the road of inquiry into these very questions.
Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish astronomer, the first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe (1473-1543), in introduction to Book, ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, 1543 cited in Dava Sobel, Copernicus: the man who changed the world,, September 2, 2011
From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. It wasn’t a miracle, we just decided to go.
Jim Lovell, NASA Astronaut aboard Apollo 13, played by Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 movie
This universe seems, in some sense, to be a living, evolving, adapting universe that utilizes information to organize itself and to create ever increasing levels of complexity. We are a part of it and cannot be separated from it and are interconnected with it all. Furthermore it appears to be a self referencing system. As nature learns, habits form and those that lead to useful outcomes solidify and effectively become “hard coded”. Even then these "habits of nature" (including us) adapt and evolve by trial and error as change occurs.

It appears that nature has bootstrapped itself not only into existence but has evolved itself into the current state of complexity that we now observe all around us. Most astounding of all is that humankind has evolved to the point that we can ask questions and have begun to gain understanding fundamental to natures very existence. Perhaps, then, we and all sentient beings really are one of natures way of knowing about and experiencing itself. Not only that, in some sense, we seem to be able to influence its very evolution.
Edgar Mitchell, American pilot, engineer, and astronaut, Robert Staretz, The Quantum Hologram And the Nature of Consciousness, Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol. 14.

Martin J. Rees on ’theory of everything’ and perspectives on cosmology

"Our Galaxy is itself just one of many billion galaxies in range of our telescopes. And there is compelling evidence that this entire panorama emerged from a hot, dense ‘beginning’ nearly 14 billion years ago. (…)

The vast domain that astronomers can observe could be an infinitesimal part of the totality. Our big bang may not be the only one: we may be living in a ‘multiverse’ – an archipelago of cosmoses, perhaps governed by an array of different physical laws.

The bedrock nature of space and time, and the unification of cosmos and quantum are surely among science’s great ‘open frontiers’. (…)

But to call this a quest for the ‘theory of everything’ is hubristic and misleading. Biologists and environmental scientists (and even most physical scientists) aren’t held up at all by the lack of such a theory – they are tackling a third frontier: the very complex. (…)

It may seem incongruous that scientists can make confident statements about galaxies billions of light years away, while being baffled about issues close at hand that we all care about – diet and common diseases, for instance. But this is because living things with intricate levels of structure (even the smallest insects) are far more complex than atoms and stars. (…)

But even if those equations could be solved, they wouldn’t offer the enlightenment that scientists seek. Each science has its own autonomous concepts and laws. Reductionism is true in a sense. But it’s seldom true in a useful sense. Problems in biology, and in environmental and human sciences, remain unsolved because it’s hard to elucidate their complexities – not because we don’t understand subatomic physics well enough.

Along with the origin of the physical universe, the beginnings of life surely pose another ‘big question’. (…) Our cosmos would then seem far more interesting: we would look at a distant star with renewed interest if we knew it was another Sun, shining on a world as intricate and complex as our own.

We may learn this century whether biological evolution is unique to the ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos that is our home, or whether Darwin’s writ runs through a wider universe that teems with life – even with intelligence.

Are there special perspectives that cosmologists can offer to philosophy? I think there are. First, their findings disclose the interconnectedness of cosmic processes. Not only do humans share a common origin with the entire web of life on Earth, but all living things depend on the stars: life is energised by heat and light from the Sun; we are made of atoms that were forged from pristine hydrogen, in faraway stars long ago. To understand ourselves we must understand the atoms we’re made of – and the intricate complexity with which they combine into DNA, proteins and cells. But we must also understand the stars in which those atoms were made.

But cosmologists offer another distinctive insight: an awareness not only of the immensity of space but of the ‘deep time’ that lies ahead. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture. But most people still somehow think we humans are the culmination of the evolutionary tree – and that hardly seems credible to an astronomer. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. According to the best current ultra-long-range forecast, the expanding universe will continue – perhaps until infinity – becoming ever colder, ever emptier. So, even if life were now unique to Earth, there would be abundant scope for posthuman evolution on the Earth or far beyond. It won’t be humans who witness the Sun’s demise: it will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug – either organic or siliconbased. (…)

My concerns are deepened by the realisation that, even in a perspective extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining moment. Our planet has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first in its history where one species – ours – has Earth’s future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life’s immense potential.”

Martin J. Rees (British cosmologist and astrophysicist, former President of the Royal Society) acceptance statement on being awarded the Templeton Prize, Statement by Professor Martin J. Rees (pdf), April 6, 2011.
Lawrence Krauss on understanding the universe

Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.

(…) The amazing effort to understand how the universe works reveals wonders far more remarkable than those presented by Bronze age myths, developed before we had any clear understanding of how the universe works. Simply arguing that one doesn’t understand the results, or doesn’t like the results and therefore one has to resort to supernatural explanations (…) is indeed intellectually lazy, as I did say at the time.” “
Lawrence Krauss's (American Theoretical Physicist, Professor at the Arizona State University) response and perspective on his debate with an American Evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic “Is There Evidence for God?” which were held on 30th March, 2011 at NC State University. A response and perspective on debate with Craig, Lawrence Krauss on his FB notes, April 5, 2011.
Two millennia later, it seems that Plato’s cave may be more than a metaphor. To turn his suggestion on its head, reality—not its mere shadow—may take place on a distant boundary surface, while everything we witness in the three common spatial dimensions is a projection of that faraway unfolding. Reality, that is, may be akin to a hologram.
Brian Greene, American theoretical physicist and string theorist, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Knopf, 2011. (tnx johnsparker) ☞ See also: Brian Greene: The Search For Hidden Dimensions (video)
Q: “If the ultimate fate of our universe is so bleak, what then is its purpose?”
A: “Why does everything have to have a purpose? There is a lot of opportunity for us in a universe with 50 billion more years of ‘life’. If we are up to the challenge, we are going to have a lot of fun and exciting time to look forward to. If we are not up to the challenge, we will soon become extinct on a planet whose days are numbered.
You choose!!” “
Sten Odenwald, astronomer, researcher studying the cosmic infrared background and space weather, Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University,Ask the Astronomer
Marcelo Gleiser on the beginning of universe

“There were no witnesses to what was about to happen. “Happen” didn’t yet exist. Reality was timeless. Space also didn’t exist. The distance between two points was immeasurable. The points themselves could be anywhere, hovering and bouncing. Infinity tangled into itself. There was no here and now. Only Being. Suddenly, a trembling, a vibration, an ordering began. Like roiling waves, space shuddered and swelled. What was near became far. What was now became past.

As space and time were born, change began to happen: from Being to Becoming. Space bubbled; time unfurled. Soon, matter coalesced from the joint heaving of space and time, seeping out of its pores. This was no mundane substance: nothing like us; nothing like atoms. This matter stretched space, made it inflate like a swelling balloon. This balloon became our Universe.” “
" "Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner has written that it “was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way, without reference to the consciousness [of the observer] (…) the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is the ultimate reality.” Or, as the poet John Keats once wrote, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” “
— quoted in Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds (via johnsparker)
The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it
But the way those atoms are put together
The cosmos is also within us
We’re made of star stuff
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

Across the sea of space
The stars are other suns
We have traveled this way before
And there is much to be learned

I find it elevating and exhilarating
To discover that we live in a universe
Which permits the evolution of molecular machines
As intricate and subtle as we
Bill Bryson on the history of Earth

“If you imagine the 4,500-bilion-odd years of Earth's history compressed into a normal earthly day, then life begins very early, about 4 A.M., with the rise of the first simple, single-celled organisms, but then advances no further for the next sixteen hours. Not until almost 8:30 in the evening, with the day five-sixths over, has Earth anything to show the universe but a restless skin of microbes.

Then, finally, the first sea plants appear, followed twenty minutes later by the first jellyfish and the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna first seen by Reginald Sprigg in Australia. At 9:04 P.M. trilobites swim onto the scene, followed more or less immediately by the shapely creatures of the Burgess Shale. Just before 10 P.M. plants begin to pop up on the land. Soon after, with less than two hours left in the day, the first land creatures follow.

Thanks to ten minutes or so of balmy weather, by 10:24 the Earth is covered in the great carboniferous forests whose residues give us all our coal, and the first winged insects are evident. Dinosaurs plod onto the scene just before 11 P.M. and hold sway for about three-quarters of an hour. At twenty-one minutes to midnight they vanish and the age of mammals begins. Humans emerge one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.

The whole of our recorded history, on this scale, would be no more than a few seconds, a single human lifetime barely an instant. Throughout this greatly speeded-up day continents slide about and bang together at a clip that seems positively reckless. Mountains rise and melt away, ocean basins come and go, ice sheets advance and withdraw. And throughout the whole, about three times every minute, somewhere on the planet there is a flash-bulb pop of light marking the impact of a Manson-sized meteor or one even larger. It’s a wonder that anything at all can survive in such a pummeled and unsettled environment. In fact, not many things do for long.” “