Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Book of Cosmism: Facing the Cosmic Dark

(Note: this is a first draft of a chapter in “The Book of Cosmism”, which I hope to publish some time within the next precessional cycle of equinoxes.)

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.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Some Cosmist Poetry

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

—From The Hashish Eater by Clark Ashton Smith


The Cosmic Comedy

What is this mad sight before you?

Incarnate speck of star dust,
Animate ash of stellar fires,
Cinder of the Cosmos
Shaking its fist at the sky.

Some outraged atoms,
Unamused by the cosmic joke
That has imprisoned them there upon a mote,
Spinning, helpless in the void.

An ant upon a cosmic carousel
Turning through space and time,
An extra in an unknown drama
Upon a stage too big for its mind.

—Sean “The Cosmist” Taylor


What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?

from “Vastness” by Alfred Tennyson


My heart trembles like a poor leaf.
The planets whirl in my dreams.
The stars press against my window.
I rotate in my sleep.
My bed is a warm planet.

—Marvin Merger, Fifth grader, Harlem, NY


I stood and stared; the sky was lit,
The sky was stars all over it,
I stood, I knew not why,
Without a wish, without a will,
I stood upon that silent hill
And stared into the sky until
My eyes were blind with stars and still
I stared into the sky.

from "Song of Honor” by Ralph Hodgson


Unknowingly, we plow the dust of stars, blown about us by the wind, and drink the universe in a glass of rain.

—Ihab Hassan

Split the atom's heart, and lo!
Within it thou wilt find a sun.

—Persian Mystic Poem


Planet Caravan

We sail through endless skies
stars shine like eyes
the black night sighs
The moon in silver trees
falls down in tears
light of the night
The earth, a purple blaze
of sapphire haze
in orbit always

While down below the trees
bathed in cool breeze
silver starlight breaks down the night
And so we pass on by the crimson eye
of great god Mars
as we travel the universe

—Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)


Alone in space, I view'd a feeble fleck
Of silvern light, marking the narrow ken
Which mortals call the boundless universe.
On ev'ry side, each as a tiny star,
Shone more creations, vaster than our own,
And teeming with unnumber'd forms of life;
Though we as life would recognize it not,
Being bound to earthy thoughts of human mould.
As on a moonless night the Milky Way
In solid sheen displays its countless orbs
To weak terrestrial eyes, each orb a sun;
So beam'd the prospect on my wond'ring soul;
A spangled curtain, rich with twinkling gems,
Yet each a mighty universe of suns.

—From The Poe-et's Nightmare by H. P. Lovecraft

Monday, March 21, 2011

Laughing at the Cosmic Joke

Lest you think the Cosmist perspective is all humorless philosophizing and no joy, consider this video:

Pure genius! This gives me an idea for a kind of "cosmotherapy" or Cosmist ministry: instead of telling people how special they are to God, tell them they're an utterly insignificant speck of dust on a grain of sand in an uncaring universe, and I bet you'll find it will cheer them up considerably. Nothing snaps you out of a depression like the realization that nothing you do actually matters in the cosmic scheme of things!

In a somewhat similar vein, this mind-blowing TED talk is a must-watch:

A typical place in the universe is so dark that if you were to look directly at the nearest star as it went supernova you wouldn't be able to see even a glimmer! David Deutsch is a Lovecraftian mad genius, I love this guy!

As long as I'm posting videos with a British Cosmicist flavor, I'll go ahead and re-post this one:

If you can't find it in you to believe in any hopeful, optimistic vision for humanity in the Cosmos, then at least learn to laugh at the cosmic joke that is our present existence!

The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind. —H.P. Lovecraft

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Songs of Saturn and a Sermon

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.

I'm speechless; in total awe. The human species is officially redeemed. This is actual photographic footage, not CGI animation, of a real life planet more than a billion kilometers from Earth, taken from the Cassini space probe.  How is such cosmic beauty and human ingenuity not being broadcast on prime time television in every nation on Earth, sung of and celebrated by artists and poets throughout the world?

I'm reminded of a great quote by Richard Feynman:
The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries — certainly a grand adventure!

It is true that few unscientific people have this particular type of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don't know why. Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

Is no one inspired by such pictures of Saturn? I'd like to think that I'm doing my small part here to sing of the glory of the universe and to help usher in such a scientific age. Videos like this really bring back that childhood sense of awe and wonder at the Cosmos which is so easily lost, but is the essence of Cosmism.

(And in case you're wondering about the little moon with the distinctive crater, that's no Death Star, that's Mimas!)

OK I guess I lied, I'm not speechless... Sorry, but images like this are like religious revelations to me. And though I haven't had much response yet to my lonely crusade to convert the universe to the cosmic religion, this inspiring video of fellow Cosmist fanatic Neil DeGrasse Tyson proves that at least I'm not alone in my obsession. If one day soon there is a Church of Cosmism, surely Mr. Tyson will be one of its most popular and charismatic reverends!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Great Moments in Cosmist History

  • 13.7 billion years BP: The Big Bang gives birth to the universe as we know it.

  • 3.7 billion years BP: Microbial life appears on planet Earth.

  • 530 million years BP: The Cambrian explosion produces complex, multi-cellular life.

  • 65 million years BP: The Chicxulub asteroid causes the K-T extinction event, ending the reign of the dinosaurs and making way for the rise of the mammals.

  • 200,000 years BP: Homo Sapiens emerges on the east African plain; their tool-using intelligence represents a singularity in the history of life which ushers in the Anthropocene epoch.

  • 6000 years BP: civilization emerges in the Fertile Crescent, allowing the development of specialized skills and knowledge which becomes the basis for all future scientific and technological progress.

  • 1543: Nicolaus Copernicus publishes De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, describing a heliocentric world system in which the Earth is no longer regarded as the center of the universe.

  • 1584: Giordano Bruno proposes that the stars are each suns and there are an infinity of worlds.  He is burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.

  • 1610: Galileo Galilei discovers the four largest moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus with his newly invented telescope, supporting the Copernican theory and ushering in the modern age of astronomy.

  • 1687: Isaac Newton publishes Principia Mathematica, describing his three laws of mechanics and the law of universal gravitation.

  • 1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, the foundation of evolutionary biology.

  • 1905, 1916: Albert Einstein publishes his Special and General Theories of Relativity.

  • 1925: Edwin Hubble announces his discovery that the spiral nebulae are each island universes like our galaxy, meaning the universe is billions of times larger than previously imagined.

  • 1969 The Apollo 11 lunar module lands on the surface of the Moon, ushering in the era of manned space exploration.

  • 1990 The Hubble Space Telescope launches, ushering in the era of space-based astronomy.

  • 2011: thecosmist.com launches, heralding the dawn of cosmic religion and civilization.

OK, I threw that last one in there just to see if you were paying attention.  But if you agree with the young John Connor that there’s no fate but what we make for ourselves, then I see no reason why the launch of Cosmism, which aims to be the religion for the next billion years and beyond, couldn’t be such a momentous event! In any case, welcome to the new home of The Cosmist and stay tuned for more exciting developments!

[myyoutubeplaylist ML1OZCHixR0, 2yUIBGaKO20, J71t2-IBcIU, _3NAW1U-swc, Zr7wNQw12l8]

Friday, March 11, 2011

Hell on Earth, Heaven in Space

The more I study and think about various options for life off-Earth, the more apparent it becomes that life will be much easier for our species in suitably designed space habitats built from the ground up for human beings.

The fact of the matter which the frightening scenes of the recent Japanese tsunami drive home so powerfully is that this amazing planet of ours is fraught with perils, chaos and destructive forces which we will never be able to predict or control.  As lovely as our earthly environment is, it is ultimately our enemy in that it will never stop trying to turn us into fertilizer until we, or it, are gone.  This is the deep truth that Greens and Gaians need to try to grasp: our human intelligence has no inherent allegiance to this planet as we find it; rather, it compels us to try to escape from Gaia’s cruel and capricious whims by creating tools and habitats that don’t exist in nature.  The logical extension of this impulse is to create entirely artificial environments where there are no predators, pests, viruses, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis or super-volcanoes at all, and the only place to do that is in space.

Consider for a moment one such habitat we could build quite feasibly with current or near future technology.  Imagine a medium-sized main belt asteroid, perhaps five kilometers in diameter, hollowed out with the help of mining robots.  A large cylindrical cavity is dug along the axis of rotation of the asteroid, which could be altered with rockets or mass drivers to ensure the desired rotation.  The mined materials could be used to construct the habitat or be ferried back to Mars, Luna or Earth by solar sail tugs to earn a tidy sum for the pioneers.

Meanwhile, a livable environment would be constructed on the interior surface, which would have one g pseudo-gravity due to the centrifugal force of rotation.  A breathable atmosphere could be produced from elements mined from nearby asteroids and pumped into the air-locked living chamber.  An artificial sun could be created with a solar or fusion-powered filament running along the axis which turns on and off in a circadian cycle.  The thick rock walls of the asteroid would provide ample protection against cosmic rays and solar storms.  Ice, which we now know is common in the asteroid belt, could be hauled in periodically from nearby asteroids or comets and stored in great reservoirs and lakes dug in the asteroid interior.  A sophisticated recycling system would ensure that water, air and other elements are reused efficiently.  Tens of thousands of colonists could live quite comfortably in this way inside one small asteroid.

Outside, a large solar sail could be attached like a giant parachute to the planetoid, providing continuous power to the colonists as well as a means of propulsion should they decide to go sailing around the solar system.  Arrays of antennae near the poles would connect the colony to the entire solar network of colonies and planets; optical telescopes more powerful than the Hubble would provide awesome views of near and deep space.

What a free and glorious existence!  An entire human-created world, orbiting like clockwork around the sun, with no terrestrial chaos to threaten the safety and serenity of its inhabitants.  This would be something new in human experience: life of a truly cosmic nature, close to the stars and unbounded by earthly gravity wells or ancestral limits on the imagination.  And if something truly apocalyptic were to occur back on Earth, such worlds would become arks which could carry human progeny forward indefinitely into the future.

Is this vision science fiction?  At the moment, yes.  But there is nothing about this idea that is scientifically or technologically insurmountable, or even particularly difficult.  When the infrastructure of our space industry reaches the asteroids and begins to mine the incredible riches there, I would expect such colonies to arise naturally among the miners.  There might be a new gold rush environment out there, an incredible sense of frontier freedom that modern earthbound humans can scarcely imagine.  What is not to like about this scenario?  What is preventing us from creating such a boundless future but our own timidity and lack of will?  The disasters will keep coming here on our home world, the cataclysms, wars, famines and plagues, and it’s only a matter of time before a truly biblical apocalypse strikes.  But out in the Cosmos, countless heavenly new worlds of our imagining can be created for our long-term comfort and survival.  What are we waiting for?

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