In 1905, a research paper was submitted that forever changed how science views the world. In it, the author postulated that the laws of physics, which were at the current time regarded as universal, actually depended on the relative motion between the object and that of the observer.
The consequences of that paper are far reaching, for it implies that even the passage of time itself depends on motion. That is, two clocks that are absolutely synchronized at rest will no longer be synchronized if the clocks are forced to travel at different speeds. That result, proven time and time again in many experiments, is woven into many current technologies, one of which is the GPS navigation system, where corrections must be made to the algorithm based on the relative speeds of the various satellites in orbit.
What’s extremely interesting about this discovery was that it was not made by a well known intellectual at that time, but instead was submitted by a relatively unknown Swiss patent clerk who had been dabbling in physics during his spare time.
That clerk was of course Albert Einstein.
After turning the world of science on its head with his theory of relativity, Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to devise a grand theory (known in science circles as the Unified Field Theory) that would unite all the branches of physics, and fully explain the observable world. Despite his best efforts, he was unfortunately unsuccessful.
Since that time, many researchers have struggled to complete what Einstein started nearly 100 years ago. And while many theories have been proposed (the most well known of those is now called String Theory), none of them have really come close.
Which is why I find it extremely interesting that recently a new paper, receiving rave reviews from some mainstream scientists, has emerged that provides not only a relatively simple theory of how everything ties together, but also depicts the fabric of the universe as a stunning geometrical shape.
The author of that paper? A 39 year old surfer in Hawaii.
And while I’m sure that the quest for that grand theory will continue for a while, it is a quest I have always believed is worth pursuing. For at the heart of that effort is quite simply the search for truth, a pursuit that has shown not only how large the universe is, but also how truly insignificant our role is in it. And once you come to accept that, many of the problems we face as inhabitants of this planet seem rather small and easily repairable by comparison.
Take for example this image, captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it passed out of our own solar system:
The late Dr. Carl Sagan, a well-known astronomer, once said these words about this photo:
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
No matter what religion you believe in or what colour your skin is, there is an undeniable truth in that last sentence — that we owe it to ourselves and each other to base our lives on kindness, compassion, understanding and respect, not only for each other, but for this place we call home.