Darkened Skies

Posted: July 24, 2008 in Philosophy, Science

The Hubble telescope has helped cosmologists to establish that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, which goes against the theory of cyclical expansion and contraction of the universe leading to multiple big bangs. (The cyclical universe theory had nearly grown to be dogma among those of us of a certain age.) Popular science magazines and university academic departments have been all over this new development for a few years now, and a few are even beginning to question its implication. One such implication is that we humans are living during a lucky sliver of cosmological time when evidence of the universe around us is available — visible even to the naked eye in the form of the night sky.

current night sky

However, as the universe continues to expand over the eons, stars and galaxies will recede from view and the skies will go dark, except of course for our own sun, which will long since have swollen into a red giant, scorched the Earth to smithereens, and eventually burned out. There will also be a supergalaxy formed from the collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, but otherwise, nothing else will be visible. This slideshow by Scientific American offers a glimpse of what once was, what is, and what’s to come for the vastly aged universe. (The pictures are oversaturated, which almost all photos of the cosmos are these days, presumably to add unnecessary punch and appeal to something that is already pretty awe insipiring.)

A fuller telling of this story in Scientific American is here. In short, as the universe expands, it will eventually erase the evidence of its own existence, and anyone or anything that persists on Earth will be part of an island galaxy surrounded by an almost infinite void — a discredited theory from the early 1900s that will ironically come to be true in cosmological time.

There is another sense in which the skies have darkened in our own time. Wired Magazine has an article about an art exhibit showing photographs of 189 purportedly secret spy satellites. I’ve written in the past about the security state in which we live, and although spy satellites may in part protect us from our enemies (a paranoid concept, I think), I’m increasingly convinced that those satellites are trained on us, the citizenry. But I may have had it wrong that the state is afraid of us. In truth, the state could care less about us and accordingly no longer has any legitimacy as a government for and by the people. Rather, the state and its corporate puppeteers are more interested in using us as profit sources and maintaining its monopoly on the use of force.

The case of spy satellites is an apt metaphor for how fixated on ourselves we have already become, which may eventually have been the case if we were somehow able to ensure long-term survival (millions and billions of years) and were the only beings known to exist in the universe. The Daily Galaxy has a couple articles (here and here) discussing mankind’s questionable short-term future (a century or less) for a host of reasons. Such apocalyptic thinking is even creeping into such mainstream fare as Roger Ebert’s movies reviews, where he states the following in a review of The Happening:

For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act. We have finally insulted the planet so much that it can no longer sustain us. It is exhausted.

Ebert’s rumination is in contrast to this fatuous opinion column in the Wall Street Journal by Gregg Easterbrook, who apparently hasn’t noticed that our resources are being used up, our economy is teetering on collapse, and tent cities have been springing up to house the dispossessed.

It’s not fair to say, as one might suspect, that we have experienced a sudden, sharp turn inwards to contemplate our own magnificence as a result of the disappearance or newly acknowledged remoteness of the rest of the universe. The turn inward has been underway since the Enlightenment, when myth and ritual were slowly replaced by science, rationalism, and narcissism. We still project ourselves outwardly into the world in a variety of ways, but we now project less into the cosmos except when that projection refocuses on us, like our reflection in a mirror. With the disappearance of myth and ritual as cementing cultural constants that focus beyond ourselves as individuals, our sky gods have also disappeared, and so the only meaningful thing remaining in the universe is us.

One of the usual reasons offered for the collapse of our outward directedness is the closing of the frontier. A few wild places still exist in the world, mostly due to their remoteness, resistance to human intrusion, and inhabitability. Otherwise, we would be there cutting and draining and paving and spoiling like we do elsewhere. Today, there is precious little virgin territory left to subdue and exploit, and much of that is being set aside as nature sanctuaries (hooray for that, even though such actions may be too little and too late to forestall ecological collapse and reduce biodiversity to the point where a soylent green dystopia might arise). The hope that the new frontier might be space (outer space or off planet, that is) has already collapsed, considering that several moonshots were successful (40+ years ago but none since!) yet Mars is still too far away to be feasible. Interstellar exploration is completely out of range, and even science fiction stories can’t imagine a scenario in space that isn’t full of humans or humanoids.

So we keep focus on ourselves, since it’s increasingly clear that even though we may not be the only sentient beings in the universe, we’re at least the only ones who will ever matter to us. And although evidence is piling up that many animal species (I use that term grudgingly and with acknowledgment that we, too, are animals) have a rudimentary consciousness, we’re too impatient to wait for them to evolve something resembling human consciousness and probably wouldn’t grant them equal rights to the planet anyway. No, we’re the only game in town, or in the universe, and because of our preoccupation with ourselves — at the expense of every other living thing — we no longer bother to project ourselves skyward except when it offers the opportunity to put up another satellite, whether for broadcast or surveillance, to beam our chatter and doings back to us.  Since we no longer perceive ourselves as participants in something larger than ourselves, we live as though wearing shutters, perceiving darkened skies through similarly darkened eyes.

  1. No argument, Brutus. Except that I can see where myth and ritual before the Enlightenment factor into the same trajectory, leading us to the inevitable end.

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