Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hidden Costs of a Cosmic Perspective

In Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains nothing less than the workings of the entire cosmos. But in the conclusion he raises a more demanding problem: where, in all these astral wonders, do we humans fit in?


       The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.

       When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this earth without food or shelter….

       When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets… sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.…

       I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is…the universe is even bigger.

     …[So I] think of people not as the masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years to the earliest single-celled organisms on Earth….If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we are distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.

     [The cosmic perspective is] more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.

     The cosmic perspective is humble….

     [It is] spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious….

     [It] enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small….

     [It] opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another….

     [It] not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

The last seven excerpts here are especially bracing. They assume a widespread acceptance of basic science. They leave no room for truisms about being mere specks in a vast unknown where mysteries await. Tyson knows a good deal about that “vast unknown” and it’s not a welcoming place; we humans are genetically not so exceptional even on our own planet; and grasping “the large and small” in the same thought as we humbly assess our place in the universe is not a routine intellectual skill for most of us.

Still, it is so valuable to have Tyson’s map of the challenges.