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Cosmos: Who Speaks For Earth

Published on March 22, 2019 by Paul Ciano

Carl Sagan:

This first encounter turned out to be peaceful. The men of the Lapérouse expedition were under strict orders to treat with respect any people they might discover, an exceptional policy for its time, and after. Lapérouse and the Tlingit exchanged goods, and then the strange ship sailed away, never to return.

Not all encounters between nations had been so peaceful. Before 1519, the Aztecs of Mexico had never seen a gun, and they too believed, at first, that their strange visitors had come from the sky.

The Spaniards, under Cortés, were not constrained by any injunctions against violence. Their true nature and intentions soon became clear. Unlike the Lapérouse expedition, the Conquistadors sought, not knowledge, but gold. They used their superior weapons to loot and murder. In their madness, they obliterated a civilization.

We revile the Conquistadors for their cruelty and short-sightedness. For choosing death. We admire Lapérouse and the Tlingit for their courage and wisdom. For choosing life. The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity.

Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits.

National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatic ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.

There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours rush, inevitably, headlong into self-destruction. I dream about it. And sometimes they’re…bad dreams.

There would be no more big questions. No more answers. Never again, a love, or a child. No descendants to remember us and be proud. No more voyages to the stars. No more songs from the Earth.

The hostile military establishments are locked in some ghastly mutual embrace. Each needs the other. But the balance of terror is a delicate balance, with very little margin for miscalculation.

And the world impoverishes itself by spending a trillion dollars a year on preparations for war and by employing, perhaps, half the scientists and high technologists on the planet in military endeavors. How would we explain all this to a dispassionate, extraterrestrial observer? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth?

We have heard the rationales given by the superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for planet Earth?

Shouldn’t we consider, in every nation, major changes in the traditional ways of doing things? A fundamental restructuring of economic, political, social, and religious institutions. We’ve reached a point where there can be no more special interests or special cases.

Fundamental changes in society are sometimes labeled impractical or contrary to human nature, as if nuclear war were practical, or as if there were only one human nature.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People from all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On a given day, these harbors were throbbing with merchants, and scholars, and tourists. It’s probably here that the word cosmopolitan realized its true meaning, of a citizen, not just of a nation, but of the cosmos. To be a citizen of the cosmos.

Here were clearly the seeds of our modern world. But why didn’t they take root and flourish? Why, instead, did the West slumber through a thousand years of darkness until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscovered the work done here? I cannot give you a simple answer, but I do know this.

There is no record in the entire history of the library that any of the illustrious scholars and scientists that worked here ever seriously challenged a single political or economic or religious assumption of the society in which they lived.

The permanence of the stars was questioned. The justice of slavery, was not.

The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrender to mysticism.

So when, at long last, the mob came to burn the place down, there was nobody to stop them.

Let me tell you about, the end. It’s a story about the last scientist to work in this place. A mathematician, astronomer, a physicist, and head of the School of Neoplatonic philosophy in Alexandria. That’s an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age.

Her name was Hypatia. She was born in this city in the year 370 A.D. This was a time when women had, essentially, no options. They were considered property. Nevertheless, Hypatia was able to move, freely, un-self-consciously, through traditional male domains. By all accounts, she was a great beauty. And although she had many suitors, she had no interest in marriage.

The Alexandria of Hypatia’s time, by then, long under Roman rule, was a city in grave conflict. Slavery, the cancer of the ancient world, had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power, and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture.

Hypatia stood at the focus, the epicenter, of mighty social forces. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, despised her, in part because of her close friendship with a Roman governor, but also because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early church with paganism.

In great personal danger, Hypatia continued to teach and to publish. Until, in the year 415 A.D., on her way to work, she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s followers. They dragged her from the chariot, tore off her clothes, and flayed her flesh from her bones with abalone shells.

Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

History is full of people who, out of fear, ignorance, or the lust for power, have destroyed treasures of immeasurable value, which truly belong to all of us. We must not let it happen again.

We humans long to be connected with our origins, so we create rituals. Science is another way to express this longing. It also connects us with our origins, and it, too, has its rituals and its commandments.

Its only sacred truth, is that there are no sacred truths.

All assumptions must be critically examined. Arguments from authority are worthless.

Whatever is inconsistent with the facts, no matter how fond of it we are, must be discarded or revised.

Science is not perfect. It’s often misused. It’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything. With this tool, we vanquish the impossible.

Our loyalties are to the species, and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed, not just to ourselves, but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Paul Ciano

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