The steady-state environment delusion
Cosmologists have calculated that our particular universe is 13.7 billion years old. It came into existence with the big bang, as did space and time. It’s big. It consists of lots of matter, especially hydrogen, which has aggregated into different objects. The ones we see in the night sky are the stars. We call our star the Sun. When enough matter coalesces in a certain way, it ignites into a star, which is nothing more than a vast nuclear fusion reactor which cooks hydrogen down progressively to heavier elements such as iron, before it either becomes dormant, implodes or explodes in an event called a nova or in the case of a big one, a supernova. Any one of these three ways a star ends is worthy of an article in itself.
Around a star, other aggregations of matter called planets form and are captured by the star’s gravitational field. We call this arrangement of a star with planets revolving around it a solar system and it seems to be pretty common. We live on the third planet in our solar system and we call it the Earth. Over the last two decades we’ve become better at being able to detect extremely large planets revolving around distant stars. I’ve no doubt that as our detection methods improve, we’ll start to detect more Earth-sized planets as well.
Solar systems tend to aggregate into collections of solar systems called galaxies. Our solar system is located in a galaxy we call the Milky Way. It’s a spiral galaxy and we’re located far out in it, near the end of one of its swirly arms which is why, when we look towards the centre of our galaxy, we see that broad strip of stars in the night sky we call the Milky Way. Essentially, we’re near the edge of a disc of stars looking in. How many stars are in our galaxy? Well, nobody knows exactly but estimates range from 100 billion to 400 billion, so if we take the mid-point then a workable number is 250 billion. Let’s pay that number some respect. That’s 250 with nine zeroes after it or 250,000,000,000 or 30 Suns for each one of the 7 billion people on the Earth. Spiral galaxies are quite common and there’s nothing particularly distinguished about our one. It’s approximately 100,000 light years in diameter and our solar system revolves once around the galactic centre every 250 million Earth years or so.
How many planets are there in our particular galaxy? For that number we have to do what’s known in the parlance as a “swag” or Scientific Wild-Assed Guess. The alternative word, denoting an even rougher guess, substitutes half-assed for wild-assed but it can be misinterpreted. Assuming our solar system is somehow an average one in that it contains ten planets, then it gives a swag of 2.5 trillion planets but Lord knows how many of them have moons, which do seem the best bet for finding extraterrestrial life, of whatever humble form, in our own solar system. Although some planets may be more desirable than others, it’s still 300 planets with their moons for each and every one of us.
The nearest star in the Milky Way to our solar system is Proxima Centauri, which is just over four light-years distant. The light from it takes four years to reach us. Light from our Sun takes four years to reach Proxima Centauri. What this means is when you look at that star, what you’re actually seeing is what it looked like four years ago. Some stars are light-millenia or more distant from us. The night sky is a time machine, a view into not just the past but the past at several different time points depending on the distance of the particular object you’re looking at. It’s almost certain that some of those stars we admire in our night sky no longer exist and that there are new ones that have been burning brightly for millenia whose light has yet to reach us.
Now that you’ve got the beginning of an impression of how big our own particular galaxy is, the next question is how many galaxies are there in the universe? The answer is difficult for a number of reasons but we do know it’s a very large number. To give you an idea of it, the Hubble telescope examined a postage stamp sized piece of the visible universe for over a year. The area under observation was a tenth of one millionth of the sky. In that area alone, 3,000 galaxies were counted. Like I said, it’s big. So big that the distances and numbers involved are quite simply beyond human comprehension. They’re not even swagable.
We get into the realms of what’s termed the “observable universe” too, which has very little to do with how good our telescope technology is. Galaxies can be so far away from us that light from them simply hasn’t had time to reach us yet. It’s that big and it’s a tumultuous and violent place too. Everywhere we look, we see remnants of novas and supernovas, galaxies colliding, galaxies forming, neutron stars, black holes and other even more esoteric and dangerous objects and materials. There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there which I won’t be going into but feel free to dive into it yourself; you won’t be disappointed. The energies involved are simply titanic.
Our own planet was hit very early on in its life by a smaller planet, the remnant of which, with some very large chunks of our planet, went on to form our very own satellite, the Moon. To this day, we still have a souvenir of that crust-shattering impact in the form of moving plate tectonics. Over geological timescales, the plates have come together to form new continents and then split asunder at regular intervals. Where they crash into one another, vast mountain ranges like the Himalayas are created. The borders between them give us our volcanic and earthquake zones. The continent we call the Antarctic used to be a green and verdant place till it split off and drifted to the cold south polar region to be encased in ice. Everything on it died.
Our planet Earth is approximately 4.3 billion years old and a product of a violent universe. How do I know this? Dig into it and you’ll find iron and other heavy elements which can only be made in the nuclear heart of a star. The only way such material can be released into the cosmos is if a star blows up in a nova or some other catastrophic event, distributing matter across the universe. We, our planet and everything on it are quite literally made from the star-dust of long ago exploded stars.
It’s only in the last billion years that multicellular life appeared on Earth. Simple creatures appeared about 600 million years ago and mammals about 200 million years ago. Several species of proto-humans and I’m being very generous here with the “humans” bit, came along contemporaneously about 2.5 million years ago and our particular species, Homo Sapiens (that’s you and I by the way), only appeared about 200 thousand years ago. As a species, we’ve come far and fast and in a very short period of time.
One very hard figure to find is the average lifespan of a species or even any agreed consensus on any number; we simply don’t know. Various studies come up with various figures, the most optimistic by a very long chalk being 2 million years. Allowing for that, 99.9% of all species that have ever existed on the face of the Earth are extinct and the overwhelming majority of them left no offspring species behind. No species has ever survived forever and extinction rather than speciation, seems to be the general rule.
The Dinosaurs were knocking about for 150 million years and died off about 65 million years ago. They got hit by a mass extinction but mass extinctions were old news by that time. It had all happened before and several times. There was one before theirs called the Great Extinction. That baby took out 95% of the species on our planet, even most of the insects, and we still don’t really know what caused it. About 2.4 billion years ago, another one of the extinction events was caused by new organisms releasing massive amounts of a poisonous gas into the atmosphere. It wiped out zillions of other organisms but a handful of them managed to adapt to it and thrive. The world recovered. The poisonous gas was called oxygen.
Even in our relatively short time as a species, we’ve had a few brushes with extinction. The Black Death swept across Europe in the Middle Ages and killed one-third of the population. There wasn’t enough people to bury all the dead; in the end, the closest they could come to doing a Christian burial was to fill up the cellars of the churches with the bodies. In many cathedrals in Europe, the bones are still there. In two years, the flu epidemic that followed the end of World War I killed more people than had died in the entire war; estimates range between 50 and a 100 million people. Since it appeared to favour killing young adults of child rearing age, the very real spectre of the end of us as a species was widely contemplated in government circles across the world, though that fear was never made public. It stopped suddenly and we’re still not entirely sure why it did.
If you’ve ever been at sea in a big storm or caught out in open country when some extreme weather arrives, you’ll know on a personal level what every creature on the face of the Earth knows. Anytime Mother Nature decides to do so, she can reach out and snatch the life right out of you. As in individuals, so in species, planets, stars and galaxies. The forces ranged against us and all other species are massive beyond any real meaningful comprehension and our climate is just another one of them. Nature is indifferent to our very existence. The idea that we’ve any effect on forces like these and can also somehow conserve things in some supposed ideal balanced state, is not just childish but simply ignorant beyond all belief.
If we have one survival trait in the face of these forces, it’s not our intelligence. It’s our ability to adapt to what’s coming at us. Our unique specialisation as a species is – we are born with no specialisations at all. We come into the world as a blank canvas on which is gradually painted over a decade or more, the knowledge of how to survive in the particular habitat we’ve happened to be born into. It may be a metropolis, a desert, arctic tundra, equatorial Africa, the Andes or perhaps one day, off world somewhere in outer space. We pay the price for it too. A human being has the longest and most vulnerable childhood of any species by a huge margin.
We don’t have fangs or talons but we can make sophisticated weapons. We don’t have a pelt to protect us from extreme cold but we can make clothes. We can’t run particularly fast but we can make machines that can go faster than any other animal. We can augment our capabilities in these ways, again not because of our much vaunted intelligence but because of the other unique thing we do as a species; we work together and cooperate to a degree that is unprecedented. We pool our newly learned specialisations to create artifacts for all that no single one of us could make.
This synergy between initial non-specialisation and then highly integrated cooperation is what has made us an extraordinarily successful species. Nothing else.
We look at our world and the universe with human eyes and more importantly, with a human lifespan. In terms of the latter, we see an apparently ageless and unchanging view but it’s a false impression. When looked at through the eyes of “deep” time, it is dynamic, violent and forever changing. There is no ideal static harmonious state which must be maintained. There never was and there never will be either.
As a species, that suits us fine. Other species die out because they’ve become hard-wired specialists in an environment which has changed, as it always will, but we’re different. We’re not built to handle a particular environment but just to handle change. Any one generation may not be able to handle the next big change but their offspring will and what’s more, it’ll be normality for them too.