Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. —Carl Sagan
To me there is no greater mystery than the fact that we inhabit a universe so incomprehensibly vast, yet so devoid of obvious signs of intelligent life. There is something so haunting about this immense emptiness; it is as if we have lit a candle in the dark, only to discover that what we thought was a cozy hut built just for us is really a yawning, alien cathedral without worshippers, architects or gods. Pondering the Great Silence can sometimes drive me to the brink of madness, like a character in an H. P. Lovecraft story. As an alternative to losing my mind, I decided to write this book...
Hindus and Buddhists meditate upon intricate mandalas of sand for spiritual insights; I prefer to gaze at high-resolution space telescope images. Look at the galaxies spinning in the background of this page — the famous Hubble Deep Field image taken from one arbitrary patch of empty sky. Now look at the above image of the expected view from the James Webb Telescope of the same patch of sky, and contemplate the truths such pictures teach us. Galaxies swarm around us like fireflies in every direction, containing billions of trillions of suns, untold quadrillions of worlds across billions of years in time. Yet there is no evidence anywhere that a sentient species has exploded across the universe or altered the intergalactic landscape, as we might hope to do ourselves one day. Is there some profound message for us here?
As we try to find our way in this vast Cosmos, is any question more important or more urgent than Fermi's great riddle? Does the answer lie just around the corner, as our telescopes and our minds probe ever deeper into the cosmic dark? Only science can tell us for certain — but science is not enough. The Great Silence should be addressed by our philosophers, poets, spiritual leaders, writers and artists as well, to help our species cope with this strange and terrible predicament. Having emerged from the darkness of pre-Copernican ignorance into the much greater darkness of an apparently empty and indifferent universe, we are right to be frightened — to wish to flee into what Lovecraft called “the peace and safety of a new dark age”. Having found no gods or cosmic species in a 13 billion light year radius in all directions, and stripped of our religious delusions by the facts revealed by science, modern man faces a profound spiritual crisis. Robert Anton Wilson said it well:
I feel that HPL and Stapledon expressed very powerfully a species-wide problem – our disorientation in space and time, consequent upon the Copernican and post-Copernican discoveries which revealed that the human race is not the center of the universe and not the special darling of the gods. Few "mainstream" writers have tackled that intellectual and emotional shock as unflinchingly as did HPL and Stapledon. For that reason, I think many, perhaps most, "mainstream" writers are not ultimately serious. HPL, in his terrified way, and Stapledon, in his (guardedly) optimistic way, were serious.
And while the "cosmic shock" problem has been tackled by many other serious thinkers since those early visionaries of the post-Hubble age, it remains essentially unsolved. Perhaps it will require a mystic — some modern Buddha or Mohammed, meditating in a metaphorical cave, contemplating the mysteries of the universe revealed by science — to arrive at some new set of revelations for our cosmic age. That may sound like dangerous nonsense to some, but stranger things have happened before. Scientist-mystics like Sagan and Clarke have come as close as anyone to making us feel at home in this strange Cosmos, but the Great Silence still looms. Perhaps if there is Contact and Childhood’s End there will be a resolution to this crisis; until then we are left speculating, wondering and groping for answers in the vast cosmic dark.
In the meantime, maybe Carl Sagan, that astronomer-Buddha who inspired me to write this book, said it best:
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.