The Beauty Of Insignificance

The growth of scientific knowledge has corresponded with an increasing irrelevance of human importance. As our knowledge into the makeup of the universe grows, we become painfully aware of our miniscule place in it.

In the beginning, virtually all primitive civilizations and cultures believed that the world was a flat disc, circled by the heavens. Celestial bodies in the night sky were thought to be gods, demons, or spirits.  The Greeks were the first to realize 2500 years ago that the Earth was a sphere; by understanding that the shadow cast upon the moon by the Earth was round — and thus, the Earth could not be flat. The Greeks later proved it with geometry, and determined the Earth’s size within 99% of its actual size. The universe itself however, remained geocentric. There was no Glee back then, and the most exhilarating thing to do at night was track the movements of stars — which the ancients did with a zeal, noticing odd behaviors in the movement of the planets across the night sky.

It took a few thousand years before Copernicus realized these oddities were the result of an erroneous starting point. The discrepancies of the planets movements vanished if it were the Earth that orbited the sun, and it only took another hundred years before Galileo proved it conclusively. The Earth, it was official, no longer was the center of creation.  For his troubles, Galileo received an audience with the Pope, where he was allowed to beg forgiveness for his sin; but the secret was already out, and the entire world of European intellectuals and spiritual shepherds was shaken to the core.  Earth was but a planet circling the sun, which was soon after determined to be a star, no different or superior to the thousands of others that could be seen in the night sky with primitive telescopes.

As telescopes improved and we could gaze further into the reach, the sun became no different than the billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. This information encompassed the known for a few centuries longer, until Edwin Hubble determined that outside of our galaxy there actually existed hundreds of billions of other galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars.  These galaxies were, without exception, moving away from us, which meant that the universe itself was expanding.

In the past few years scientists surveying stars have found that planets appear to be an extremely common phenomena, and most believe that every star likely has a few. This would mean that the total number of planets in our galaxy alone would be several hundred billion more than the total number of stars. In the universe? Trillions of billions of planets, including some Earth-like planets on nearby stars.

‘Nearby star’ is a relative term, however. The closest star from Earth aside from the sun is 4.2 light years away, which is about 24,690,226,567,368 miles. That is the nearest of one of the billions of stars in our galaxy, which is 100,0000 light years long (58,786,253,731,830,000 miles) which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, our closest galactic neighbor being 2.6 million light years away (15,284,425,970,275,800,000 miles). Some new and promising theories in quantum mechanics (which I won’t pretend to understand) suggest that our universe itself might be one of billions of trillions of universes.

This vast distance acts as a time travelling device of sorts; and we can glimpse the origins of the universe to roughly 14,000,000,000 years ago.  In an age where governments run deficits into the trillions as a matter of course, one loses the scale of how long 14 billion years of time actually is. The best way to see the difference is that the Earth orbits on its axis (a day) 1 million times every 2739.72 years. One billion sunrises takes 2,739,726 years. A million rotations ago, Egypt was an empire building pyramids, humanity was literate, and the origins of philosophy and law were beginning to take shape.

A billion rotations ago, Homo sapiens did not exist.

The immensity of this type of length is called ‘deep time’ by scientists, because it is impossible to contemplate.

The distance in time and space is so long that many of the galaxies we see from a great distance away actually no longer exist. The light we see is just a ghost of stars that have consumed themselves billions of years ago. All stars eventually use up their fuel and explode, vaporizing anything and everything around them. One day, billions of years from now, our sun will explode and destroy the Earth, annihilating every trace that anything — sentient or stone — ever existed.

That humanity itself will one day cease to exist is a foregone conclusion. 99.99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are extinct. The Earth has had several major extinction events in the 2,000,000,000 year history of life, and if we don’t kill ourselves first (and I think it is almost certain we will) one day all of our progress and dreams will be eradicated by nature: a super volcano, an unimaginable earthquake, or a sudden and unexpected guest from the asteroid belt introducing itself to us at 28,000 miles per hour.

As a speck of microcosmic dust, in the scheme of the universe you are — almost literally — nothing. The universe would not so much as bat its eyelash if the Earth was annihilated tomorrow, and would continue about its routine as if nothing unusual had happened at all, which, strictly speaking, hadn’t.

Sigh.

But wait:

Even though you, and me, and everyone and everything we have ever known is destined for the void, you are an occurrence that is statistically damn near impossible.

You exist.

99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of everything in the universe is not alive.

You are.

Additionally, perhaps 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% of that  .0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001% are beings like you; self aware, equipped with the ability to think, feel, reason, and love.

You are a member of the only known species in this damn near infinite universe that can experience the unrivaled pleasures of a first kiss, giving birth, or eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. What is the immensity of Jupiter compared to the ability to feel the rush one experiences when falling in love, holding your newborn’s clutching fingers, or singing “Hey Jude” in the shower? Would anyone trade the sterile immortality of the heavens if it meant that one could be unable to appreciate the sunset, never savor the smell of the ocean, or be forbidden to play Halo 3?

The collection of memories you have, the kaleidoscope of every experience you have ever had; the good, the bad, and the hideous, make up an existence that approximately 0% of the universe will never see repeated.

You, whose miniscule existence is confined to the blink of an eye; you, who are completely ignored by the universe, mean something to someone here — which makes your pathetic little life and all its silly problems, with all your foibles and flaws — more important and unique than whole planets, suns, galaxies in which no life ever existed at all.

Let the universe have its infinity.  I’ll take my brief limited time here, and attempt to savor every moment of it. The universe can keep its size. I’ll take my puny life, destined soon to come to an end, and enjoy what I can, when I can. The universe has callous unrelenting forces; I’ll take my memories and emotions over strength any day.

Let the universe have its mysteries. I’ll use my mind to enjoy figuring them out. TC mark

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  • TwistedDolls

    brilliant! just brilliant! :)

  • Hannah Levin

    at first i thought this was going to be rather depressing, but it made me smile. it made me feel special. thank you!

  • guest

    BEATIFUL. Well done!

  • Guest

    THIS, is some enlightened and brilliant shit. TC needs to keep up – we don’t always want to read Ryan be gay, sassy and self-loathing, or listen to some hipster chick recount song lyrics to some long lost ex bf who is humping some chick that looks just like her now or some gaysian talk about coming out to his parents in some coffe house facebook indie music psuedo ironic list blog bullshit. This is genius. Kudos.

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      Well, yes AND no. This is Thought Catalog, so people usually have thoughts of all kinds. 

  • Gordis

    Kudos to Mr. Atwood.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this!!

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    Coming up: the beauty of erectile dysfunctions.

  • Pkushy

     Brilliant read man,  first time I’ve actually taken the time to comment on an article. Looking forward to more profound work from you.

  • Anonymous

    Damn, Ben Atwood. This is stellar. (PUN!) I like it. I like it a lot. 

  • http://twitter.com/sodiumsepia Rick

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  • Steph

    I really hope you’ve watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

  • Anonymous

    wow. this was refreshing, endearing, and chilling.  

    while i normally feel the whole camus-ian : “i laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe”, this was really inspiring. i can’t thank you enough for making me change my perspective. 

  • Alleyisadoll

    Life is beautiful, now I’m even more anxious to hold my baby.

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    Insignificance is bliss.

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    More of this please. 

  • Christopher Glemaud

    This is quite the defeatist attitude. We’re not simply customers in this Universe, but also its proprietor. We ARE the Universe! Sure, our physical bodies are “puny” and “insignificant,” but our spirit, our souls, they extend far beyond our comprehension. We all die — everything must — but nothing ceases to exist. We all simply re-become stardust…the Universe!

  • Luckycanuck

    SCREW YOU UNIVERSE!  I’m having some ICE CREAM!

  • Limitless

    This is far and away the best article I’ve ever read on TC. Everything I’ve always thought and admired and appreciated, encapsulated in one perfect piece of writing. I smiled for the rest of the day after reading this, and that was saying something considering I was at work. I printed it out so I can put it up somewhere, and I forced a bunch of my friends to read the article. I’ve always felt lying under the stars and gazing out into our vast, mysterious sky is the ultimate stress-reliever, and now I can express this feeling to others through your words.
    This is also my first comment. Thank you Ben! Truly enlightening stuff.

  • RS

    I bookmarked this a month ago and just read it again and it is truly as powerful the second time as the first.

    The significance of insignicance was a hard-learned discovery of mine some years ago. I was caught in a deep bout of depression and even checked myself into an in-patient treatment center for a few days to get try to get better. I was 21. My experience at the facility was horrible, the therapists and other healthcare providers treated all of us ill people as small children that needed to be disciplined. The thought that the place that’s supposed to help your depression only made it worse was unbearable. Until one night, the smokers were allowed to go out into the interior courtyard for smoke breaks and I asked if I could go with them to get some fresh air. I was allowed to and I can remember the moonlight shining on pavers. I looked up and saw a sky full of bright stars. And I was literally stricken with awe! That in all this vast universe created by God (or created,without a god in your beliefs), I, and every other human, is truly special by being so truly significant in our insignificance. My depression vastly improved after that night and eventually went away and I carry that thought/feeling/miracle/experience with me everyday. I have never told anyone that story before, but your writing spoke so precisely to where i was those years ago, during one of the most difficult times in my young life that it impelled me to share.

    Thank you for writing the words to one chapter of my life, even though I do not know you and
    Ilkely never will.

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    Reblogged this on mizzyellaneous and commented:
    Just beautiful.

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    Reblogged this on vividhope and commented:
    I’ve been quite fascinated by the relative insignificance of human existence, the shortness of life. We might as well be a letter in a word in a sentence on a page in a book in a library in a city in one country in this enormous universe! And that kind of fear and insignificance has kept me awake at night.
    – Laura Marling

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