“The fact that we can see that long ago is just astonishing.”
Professor Gerry Gilmore, from Cambridge University, UK, commented: “[This] was probably one of the first stars that ever formed in the Universe; and it will have been one of the first things that ever created stuff like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that led then to normal stars like our Sun and the planets forming much, much later on.”
Thirteen billion light-years away, and our telescopes have detected it. I’m reminded of the stunning opening sequence in Contact, the film based on Carl Sagan’s novel. We’ve now peered tantalizingly close to the beginning of the known universe. As Sagan said, we have walked far.
But the greater question still is how far we have yet to travel. Events and objects of an imagined but remote future are unfathomably beyond the human scale, and so we tend not to take the long view of things – with predictable consequences for the health of our fragile planet, and frightening implilcations for the prospects of our race. The Millennium Clock might help us widen our frame of meaningful reference, and so might this wisdom – shared by John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Carl Sagan, and Hannah Arendt, among others – from Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…”
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…”
Looking far forward, as well as back, is crucial. More on this to come.