The greatest accomplishment of Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series — aside from establishing 42 as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything — was to give readers a glimpse at the unbelievable size of the universe.
“Space is big,” Adams wrote. “Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.”
Adams distilled the vastness of space into his Total Perspective Vortex, a machine which gives people a true "sense of proportion" by forcing them to experience the infinite scale of the universe. And alongside this unending expanse of everything is a tiny, microscopic dot whispering, “You are here.”
Unfortunately, experiencing one’s true place in an infinite universe turns out to be very bad as it destroys your mind and soul. Which, as Adams relates, is why it is critically important that people not keep a true sense of proportion in their lives.
Adams needn't have worried because humans have long had difficulty comprehending the vast scales of the universe into which we’ve been cast. We have trouble contemplating how big the Earth is, and our planet is tiny compared to the biggest occupants of our solar system. But when most people on Earth are born and raised and die within the space of a few thousand kilometers, it’s difficult to see beyond our tiny slices of existence.
Moving that perspective to the larger scales of the universe is even more difficult.
And the infinite reaches of space aren’t the only thing humans lack an ability to truly understand. The eternity of time in which we live also eludes our mental grasp.
Again, this is a limitation of human existence. We are born and live for a brief span of years. However, thanks to the wonders of human consciousness and ego, we believe that during this time we the most important person in existence.
Most people have the decency to deny this. But humility is often merely a culturally created statement — we know going around letting our ego run berserk is bad, so most of us learn to mask our egos. Yet aside from a few enlightened monks and other selfless people, most humans still believe they are important to the grand scheme of life.
I suspect such ego-centric views are a human survival mechanism. We should thank the ego for the fact our species is still alive. But the human ego also produces horrific excesses. Case in point, President-Elect Donald Trump. Can anyone deny that at the center of everything Trump does is an ego matched only by the fictional kings in the Game of Thrones?
Despite the primal scream of Trump’s ego, he isn’t a giant striding across the world. He’s a rich little boy who momentarily convinced people that he’s important.
We exist for only a brief span of space and time, However, thanks to the human ego we believe these spans are vastly important. That our existence is the pinnacle of human existence. That we’re living in the days which all of human history have built toward.
Never mind that thousands of generations of humanity believed the same. The ancient Egyptians saw their civilization as the peak of humanity. As did the ancient Greeks and Chinese and Babylonians and others, including so many civilizations now lost to history.
I love science is because it challenges such ego-centric notions of importance. When the Apollo 17 crew took the famous Blue Marble photo of the Earth on the way to the moon, humanity finally began to understand how fragile our world is. When the Voyager 1 space probe took the equally famous “pale blue dot” photo of Earth from 6 billion kilometers away, we began to realize our entire world and all of human history is little more than a dot lost within the vastness of space.
My favorite scientific discipline for giving humanity a sense of proportion is archaeology. When I worked as an archaeologist and excavated burials it was impossible to touch those bones and not realize that here was a person the same as myself. That this person lived and loved and laughed and cried and, in the end, left behind only bone and dust.
That’s the ultimate outcome to all our lives.
Adding to this sense of proportion, in recent years archaeological research has uncovered the complexity of human pre-history. It now appears that in the distant past our ancestors existed alongside numerous other related hominid species. We still carry some of the DNA of these species within us, such as homo neanderthalensis, suggesting interbreeding between our species. Others, such as homo floresiensis or the”hobbit” hominid, existed alongside us into almost modern times, possibly dying out only thousands of years ago.
And some species we don’t even know how to fit into our ancestral chart, such as the recently discovered homo naledi. Discovered in an isolated cave in South Africa a few years ago, this hominid from up to 2.5 million years ago appears to have deliberately placed their dead in this cave. This possibility is both exciting and challenging because it shows extremely human behavior long before we believed such behavior existed.
One reason humans have difficulty understand our place in space and time is because we have, by nature, a limited perception. But if we are to grow as a species then our perception — and our sense of proportion — must likewise grow.
Despite what Douglas Adams wrote, I hope that one day humanity does achieve a true sense of proportion regarding our place in space and time. Because if we don’t, our bones may be the only thing remaining after we finish tearing ourselves apart.