We Are Our Own Heroes
“We are the Universe experiencing Itself.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
Dr Tyson wasn’t the first to express this sentiment; in fact, philosophers and prophets have been saying it for thousands of years. It’s similar to the statement in Genesis that man was given dominion over the Earth (Genesis 1:28). Humanity is placed within the universe, but at the intellectual apex of it. It’s as if all the components of the cosmos were the base and walls of a pyramid, with thinking human beings were at the top. At the same time, those human beings are constantly looking outward, to absorb and comprehend all that is.
It’s a statement of what it is be a human. To be human is to be an unerasable piece of the vast and mysterious cosmos. Learning, discovering, analyzing, imagining–all these things change us, and in changing ourselves we change the universe of which we are part. Beliefs form the basis of knowledge, and by extension, conscious choice. In the modern world, we’re presented with an array of beliefs–a buffet of thoughts and paradigms to select from. It’s bewildering and requires us to choose with imperfect knowledge. Many delay those choices until deep into adulthood. But beliefs become the basis from which one’s intellect is built, so an initial set of beliefs must be chosen. Trees need roots to become anything more than a thin twigs jutting from the ground. In the same way, a person needs a set of beliefs to grow from. Then, through experience and experimentation, our beliefs evolve.
Many books that are about an area of science–whether it’s cosmology, medicine, or chemistry–tell a narrative of the development of knowledge in that area. I think it’s not just because narrative is so important to people, but also because learning about the world around us changes us. And by changing ourselves, we change our world. We change the universe. Stories about the growth of knowledge become stories about the growth of the universe itself.
The first people to develop cities were the Sumerians. They dug canals in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, growing wheat and barley. In their fallow fields they herded sheep, goats, and cattle. They built cities and towers from clay brick and pitch. They invented writing, mathematics, and constructed the first wheels. They created the first piece of written literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale of a bad king who tries to defeat death. As Paul Cooper points out, their civilization had begun, reached its zenith, and collapsed before the last woolly mammoth died.
For the Sumerians the world was a round plate of land floating atop a vast ocean of bitter water, the sea. The sea surrounded the land, while sweet water filled the heavens. The sky was a dome that held the waters in the heavens high above the land. Clouds and rain were courses of water that passed through the ephemeral fabric of the sky. Sweet water from the mountains filled the rivers that nourished the people and their crops. In the Babylonian mythos, which was adapted from the Sumerian, the universe was not created from nothing. Instead, it sprang into existence when the god Marduk slayed Tiamat, the chaotic dragon-goddess of the sea. The Sumerian model spread throughout the old world, and is the basis of many religious texts.
Our understanding of the universe has changed, but many of those changes are more superficial than they appear at first glance. Untamable Tiamat has been replaced with a hot, roiling instanton. The god Marduk has been replaced with the unfractured pressure of the four fundamental forces. The symbolism of myth has been replaced with the abstract language of mathematics. The death-defying hero, Gilgamesh, has been replaced with millions of researchers, students, writers, and spectators. In short, all of us.
To discover, learn, and grow, is to change the universe. We are beings looking outward, searching the heavens. And there among the galaxies, we discover ourselves.