The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - The Great Chain Part 5

Assume by some cosmic fluke that the Sovereign of the Great All were to reach a point where it actually looked at our Solar System.  Assume further that it was interested in more than merely capturing the tremendous energy emitted by the Sun.  Under those conditions, it is highly likely that such a being would probably be most interested in our planet.  In comparison to the rest of the planets in our Solar System, Earth is far and away, the most interesting. Boasting a powerful magnetic field, thick atmosphere, enormous chemical diversity, liquid, gaseous and solid water, and active geological and hydrological systems, our world is, in a purely physical sense, probably the most intriguing single location in our solar system.

Keep in mind, however, that it appears that most, if not all stars, have planets orbiting them. Indeed, since the advent of exoplanetary science in the late 1990s, humans have discovered over 500 planets orbiting distant stars. While the technology to detect these planets is still in its infancy and is only capable of detecting a handful of planets whose plane of orbit is aligned with ours.  Nevertheless, we have already confirmed what many have suspected for years, that there are likely trillions of planets in our Galaxy. Even more astonishing, as of the moment of this writing, astronomers announced the discovery of GJ1214b, a planet only six times the size of earth that is believed to be completely covered by water. While the surface of this planet is scorching hot and is unlikely to support life, it cannot be overstated how critical, how fundamental liquid water is to the formation of life. Indeed, it is the presence of liquid water that gives Earth its preeminent place in the list of interesting places in the Solar System because liquid water is a necessary condition for the single most interesting feature of planet Earth, life.

Earth is the only KNOWN location in the Solar System, indeed, in the Universe that possesses something more precious and vastly more diverse and interesting, than a complex geology and hydrology or an interesting physical, chemical or electromagnetic profile - an active biosphere.

The entire surface of our planet is quite literally alive. From thousand of feet deep in the earth, to thousands of feet into the atmosphere, our world seethes with life. Quite literally, wherever water is present, life thrives. Our oceans teem with life, our landmasses are carpeted not only with massive trees and fields of grasses, but the very soil in which they grow is alive, filled to bursting with an endless array of microbial life to which we are largely oblivious. To be sure, much of that life is far, far, far beneath our level of existence and goes utterly unnoticed by large terrestrial creatures like humans, dogs, cats or elephants, but the mere fact that we are largely unaware of its existence in no way means that life is not there. The fact that humans were utterly unaware of the existence of single celled organisms until Louis Pasteur discovered the first microbes does not negate the fact that single celled organisms have dominated our planet for the vast majority of its 4.5 billion year history.  Indeed these humble organisms, utterly beneath our everyday existence, form the basis of entire ecosystems, quietly using solar energy to replicate and in the process providing food to those slightly higher on the food chain.

Often, humans look at the world around us and see it in purely human terms because we are largely incapable of transcending our level of association.  When we see an empty beach and see nothing but the waves rolling in and out, it is hard to really grasp the concept that literally everything we are looking at is alive. That the waves are filled with bacteria, algae, plankton, that with every step in the sand, we compress the world around tens of billions of tiny creatures, that each grain of sand is coated with hundreds of minute critters eking out a humble existence, that with every breath, we inhale countless thousands if not millions of other creatures. Indeed, our eyes are simply not capable of seeing the true scope of life. If life were to glow, we would be blinded by the life that surrounds us. Our world would be suffused with light, every surface, every nook and cranny, the air itself would glow. Sadly, we are not capable of such sight, however, the fact that we cannot perceive the extent to which life truly dominates our planet in no way diminishes the fact that our world is, in a very real sense, alive.

While all of the preceding assumptions about God and the Great Chain of Existence really make no sense, this one does. Our planet is AWESOME, it is hard to overstate how truly amazing, how truly marvelous and mindblowingly rich our planet truly is. It is easily the most distinguishable planet in our solar system, yet even our planet, incredible as it is, cannot meaningfully associate with any of the other objects in the solar system. While Jupiter's massive magnetic and gravitational field may associate with us in the sense that it cleans up a lot of the asteroids, comets and stellar debris floating around the solar system, thereby protecting us from harmful impact strikes, Earth is unable to reciprocate in any meaningful way. Similarly, while the Sun pours life giving energy on the Earth every second of every day, the Earth can do absolutely nothing to meaningfully associate with its parent star. Indeed, even if the Earth were to collide with the Sun it would not notice and would simply continue fusing hydrogen into helium for another 5,000,000,000 years, utterly oblivious to our demise. Indeed, the only way our planet will ever meaningfully associate with anything else in the Universe is through us – the achievement of which, would be a transcendent moment both for our species and the world that gave us birth.

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