Todd Duncan: Glimpses of Wonder

Credit: CICLOPS, JPL, ESA, NASA

The Value of a Cosmic Perspective

Science is widely valued for enhancing our ability to control the external world through technology. But scientific insights also have the power to trigger a distinct shift in our internal frame of mind. For example, consider how it feels to be you at this moment. What thoughts and sensations, worries and hopes, are floating through your awareness?

Now look at the image above, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. It shows Saturn backlit by sunlight, which sparkles through the ice particles making up the rings. Look closely near the tip of the arrow I’ve added. What is that tiny dot just inside one of the rings? It’s not a moon of Saturn. It’s Earth. You and I, along with more than 7 billion other people and all our thoughts and feelings, not to mention the many other life forms with which we share our planet.

The value of science I’m talking about is the transition that happens inside you at the moment you recognize you’re part of that tiny dot. Your thoughts and feelings change. At first, you may feel small as you become aware of the tiny physical size of Earth compared with the solar system, much less our galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars and our universe of at least as many galaxies. Yet the core insight is not about feeling small, but about feeling connected to immensity. Your point of view expands and you see things from a more open and connected state of awareness. This perspective reveals that you are a moment of awareness within one strand of a vast cosmic tapestry.

Insights from science and technology (like the Cassini photograph) offer portals into this frame of mind—a big-picture, cosmic perspective. In the long run, this could be the most powerful role our scientific knowledge will play in the future of humanity.

Why do I believe this? Because many of our difficulties—whether individual, social, or planetary—arise from narrowness of perspective that disconnects us from a broader context. We forget that no matter what situation we’re in, there is always another way to see things. Expanding our awareness is important because it helps us avoid getting stuck or trapped in one point of view and reconnects us to a broader context that gives meaning to our actions.

Many different windows offer access to this cosmic perspective. I call them “glimpses of wonder” to emphasize that they are distinct moments of internal experience. They happen when something shocks us into recognizing concretely that there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreampt of in our philosophies,” to paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous line. The stories we live within are always incomplete, and there is a deep reality extending far beyond any particular story we can tell.

Astronomical insights do this well—they have high shock value because they transport us to distances far beyond our familiar experience. Big History plays a similar role with time. It reminds us, for example, that if the entire 13.7 billion year history of the universe were represented along our outstretched arms as a timeline, all of human history would occupy only a tiny sliver at the tip of one fingernail. But ordinary, everyday observations can be glimpses of wonder as well. A raindrop landing on the tip of your nose—what puddle of water or plant did it evaporate from, and what distant star forged its oxygen atoms in its core? Religious or spiritual practice can play a similar role of transporting us into a cosmic perspective. Science does not hold a monopoly on glimpses of wonder, although it may offer a unifying and cross-cultural perspective well suited to our time.

In each case, the window itself doesn’t matter as much as the deep reality it enables us to experience. The cosmic perspective transcends the path by which we get there. Going far away from the familiar may help us reach this state of mind. But it matters because it brings us back to a fuller awareness of our immediate surroundings. We are reminded that among all the wonders in the universe, nothing is more mysterious and amazing than the simple fact that anything at all exists, in this moment. When we can glimpse in our mind’s eye the thread connecting even the most mundane or frustrating everyday experience (such as an illness, broken heart, being stuck in traffic, or a seemingly insolvable conflict between cultures or countries) to the mystery at the heart of reality, our world is transformed. We reach a more centered space from which we are better able to make wise and moral decisions. Imagine if every meeting among world leaders began with a ceremonial exercise to transport participants into a cosmic perspective—an exercise that transcended religious beliefs and cultural practices, like looking at the Cassini photo of Earth as a dot.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that such a simple change of perspective could make a difference for the complex problems in which we find ourselves entangled. But try it for yourself. Notice when your awareness is closed and narrowly focused, and when it is open and expanded like a web whose threads stretch out to distant times and places in the universe. Notice what triggers the shift for you, from small web to large network of consciousness. And notice what happens when you embrace the realization that whatever you create with this moment is a strand within a vast cosmic tapestry.

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