The Magnificence of Being Insignificant

The Cassini spacecraft has taken a picture of Earth and its moon from out near Saturn. It is an evocative one (see above). Taken on 19 July 2013, the picture isn’t the first of its kind. We’ve had the famous  Pale Blue Dot picture taken by Voyager in 1990. And the Cassini picture will be added to with other things eventually. Photo time is precious out near Saturn, and there is much work for the spacecraft to do. But this is what we have so far. Earth is the bright shiny bit in the middle; the smaller dot is the Moon. (Picture courtesy of NASA).

It stirs my blood that this picture captures every single one of the 7 billion people on Earth. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve achieved, all the stupid mistakes we’ve made, all of history, and all of life as we know it, happened on that tiny bit of dirt in the immensity of space.

It is hard to look at this picture and not feel conflicted. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming sense of isolation and insignificance. The universe is so big it contains absolutely everything there is. It is so bizarre we are only just beginning to understand how bizarre, much less comprehend its weirdness and explain it. And there we are, so small that if you dropped into the Cosmos randomly, the chances of being anywhere near enough to even notice the Earth exists are not far removed from infinity to one against. It is hard to accept that some god or gods created this enormity and then made Earth so utterly pointless.

On the other hand, the picture tells me we are utterly amazing creatures. The very fact that we can take this picture, or the Pale Blue Dot or any of the others, is an indication of just how bloody brilliant we are when we try.

If we are the only sentient beings in the universe, as Carl Sagan pointed out, then we have an enormous responsibility to get things right before we become extinct. If the universe has life other than us in it, then it must be so far away the chances of ever meeting it are next to none. If the universe is teeming with life, then what a magnificent opportunity to “join the club”.



It’s a shame, then, that we waste so much time on dumb things. Being sentient takes its toll. The fact that we can think makes us think we are enormously important. We are selfish, wanting to be important, successful and meaningful. We only have one shot at this, so we want it to work. Evolution has required us to be competitive, and we are, to the point of destroying others and ourselves. To the point of screwing up the little we have. People invent gods because they are frightened of oblivion and because they require meaning (even if most religions say we are incapable of understanding god’s plan anyway). We worship technology because it is a way of learning about the universe and also because it helps to provide the instant gratification our short, violent lives require. We fight among ourselves because the orthodoxies we embrace only make sense if others believe them too. We have to feel special, so we make sure everyone else suffers.

But then we go and take this picture, and suddenly it all gets put into perspective. We are both insignificant and mind-bogglingly amazing at the same time. For a little patch of over-emotional DNA, we haven’t done that badly. The more people come to appreciate a picture like this, the more hope there is that we come to terms with it.

Is destroying this beautiful blue little world worth being selfish? Is the brief glimmer of life you have worth wasting on triviality? I’m not asking everyone on Earth to achieve greatness. There isn’t room for that.

But try, ok?


Things I Would Never Say

I don’t think these need much introduction. It’s just a list of things you will never, ever hear me say.


1)“Wow, reality TV is so entertaining, isn’t it?”
2) “That’s ok, you don’t have to go school. No one needs an education anyway.”
3) “God is great.”
4) “Gangnam Style!”
5) “What we really need is another Superman movie. Oh, really?”
6) “Politicians make so many sacrifices and have the good of the nation constantly in their minds.”
7) “Emma Watson is such a good actress. She really has a vast range of talent.”
8) “Hey, could you speak a bit louder into your mobile phone? We can’t hear you up the back of the bus!”
9) “This broccoli is delicious!”
10) “Can I have a ticket to the One Direction concert, please?”
11) “Sure, you can have my address. I love people dropping in unexpectedly and wasting my time.”
12) “No, I don’t mind if you smoke.”

I Want a Real God

It would be so cool if God existed.

I mean a real God, not one of those crazy guys we have at the moment.

I mean an obvious god, one that reveals itself unambiguously to all. One that doesn’t need interpretation, or faith. One that gives us a holy book we can understand without going round in circles, and we don’t have to argue with others about what it means. One that rewards sensibly those who are genuinely good and punishes fairly those who are bad. One that doesn’t lay down a moral code that denies unselfish pleasure. One that is tolerant of all, even those who don’t wish to believe in it. One that is beyond gender or race or sexual orientation.

That would be so cool.

Wouldn’t it be great of God was a law, like gravity? Have you noticed that gravity exists even if you don’t believe in it? Gravity works everywhere, all the time, not just only with certain people who want to believe in it or surrender to it. We can’t help but surrender to gravity. If God was like that, we wouldn’t have to fight wars over how we believe in it.

But we don’t get that. All we get is a washed-out god, one that reflects the fears and jealousies and hopes and dreams and selfishness of human beings. We get a god that looks so lame, that is almost powerless, that can’t even get the universe right or design a sentient creature that doesn’t run a fairly good risk of destroying itself. Noah’s Ark? We don’t need a god to punish us for our sins, we are doing a great job all by ourselves.

We get a god that doesn’t accept its own creation, that has to fit science into the cracks in the faith it is supposed to have in itself, like a sort of apology.

I’d love to be able to pray and zap! – what I prayed for happens. No problem – just suspend the laws of physics for my own benefit. It would be awesome if miracles actually happened without the need to test whether they really are miracles or just that damned science getting in the way again. If I lost a limb I could just ask for another one, a real one, as good as before. What if Muhammad really had split the moon? No problem: he fixed it up again, but it would have been so amazing to see that.

It would be fantastic if that face I think I see on my slice of toast or in that tree bark or in the clouds really is the Lord. How wonderful it would be to know that god is there, watching me always, caring for me. Really, really concerned for my welfare. Not just some other person telling me that’s what god is doing.

The god we have at the moment – the gods we have – are such a disappointment. They’re so…well, just so human. Like they were invented by people. That’s a shame.

If God existed, it would be something really, really, cool. And I’d love to meet it.

Until that happens, I guess we’re stuck with our imaginings.