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What does it mean to be human in a vast cosmos?

The Evolutionary Epic

Although the evolutionary epic might not provide meaning directly, it certainly helps to understand how we came to be. We now have a good idea of how a brilliant flash of energy some 13.7 billion years ago evolved into a universe of galaxies, stars and planets. And we can now read the 4.8 billion year story of our own planet with its fiery start and evolving mantle of life as written in layers of rock, fossils, and genetic codes.

It is now clear that we are a third line of chimpanzees that has evolved into millions of humans organized into ant-like societies. Originally rare hunters, we humans took up agricultural ways, aping the clever ants that that became numerous by developing ingenious herding and gardening skills. Evolving our simple chimp tools into machines, we tapped a bonanza of fossil fuel energy and blitzkrieged the planet.


What do we know about other Earths, other life, other intelligence? There was a time when some astronomers maintained that the planets in our solar system were a rare accident. But since 1995 we have been discovering exoplanets by the score. The race is on to discover Earthlike planets. But will there be life on these planets? Astrobiology, a new multidisciplinary field, has been exploring answers to this question.

Although the possibilities for bacterial-like life look good, what about intelligent life elsewhere? A serious, scientifically sound program has been listening for forty years for radio signals from intelligent beings elsewhere in our galaxy. So far SETI has not heard from ET, but its listening capabilities are growing by leaps and bounds. If we are going to pick up signals, it is most likely we will do so in the next couple of decades.

But is there anyone out there? Perhaps the conditions are so demanding for intelligent life to evolve that it is extremely rare. Are we the only sentient beings in our galaxy, in the entire universe? Or is intelligence a natural evolutionary progression and, as the late Carl Sagan suggested, there are many civilizations in our galaxy?

Venturing Forth

We humans are nothing if not adventurous! Having explored our own planet, we are working on our solar system. Many of us are thrilled to be living in the age when humanity has begun to venture forth from its cradle, Earth. We celebrate our first steps into space.

Reaching other solar systems will be a major challenge. To reach planets circling distant stars, we will first need to learn to live sustainably on our own planet. Interstellar travel is a project for the millennia. Treckies and Geenies will need to work together.

We can envision our descendents spreading throughout the galaxy, but will they be humans or machines? Will our human-machine partnership continue, or will we humans become junior partners or even superfluous?

What does it mean to be human in a vast universe?

Our species has been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. For most of this time our cosmic perspective has been decidedly earth centered. Giordano Bruno famously speculated about other Earths, life, and intelligence—even suggesting that an infinite cosmos had no center. Percival Lowell suggested there were canals on Mars made by intelligent beings. More recently, Hollywood has shaped our perception with Star Trek, Star Wars, and ET.

But what does it mean, philosophically and spiritually, to be human in a vast universe? Will we, for all intents and purposes, forever be alone? Are we the sole sentient beings in our galaxy, perhaps the universe? Or is intelligence abundant? Is contact about to be made that will change us forever? Although this conference may not directly answer the question it poses, it may aid each conferee in developing a personal view of what it means to be human in a vast universe.

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