Essays Banner

Cosmology: The Modern Myth
By Sandy Faber, Astronomer
University of California at Santa Cruz

Modern cosmology is taking us on the most exciting voyage in human history. Far from diminishing our wonder at the Universe, this modern story of Genesis surpasses even our wildest speculations. Consider the simple words of Genesis: "Let there be light." A more succinct, more cogent depiction of the Primeval Cosmic Fireball known as the Big Bang cannot be envisioned.

The leaps that modern cosmology takes in time are simply breathtaking. We now have a very firm theory for the Universe when it was only 1 second old, and a plausible picture that pushes all the way back to 10(-35) seconds!

What was the very moment of Creation itself? It is here that the modern story still disappoints, but at least now we know the reason why. The missing piece is a completely unified picture for the four basic forces of nature -- the forces that bind atomic nuclei, atoms, galaxies, and people together.

Exploding Star Image It seems that time itself appeared along with space in the Big Bang. If we allow ourselves to speculate anyway about "a time before there was time," it may be that our entire Universe was born out of a tiny microscopic "quantum fluctuation" in a primordial soup whose nature still profoundly eludes us and may indeed be forever beyond the realm of human understanding.

Let us return now to the "firmer" ground of 10(-35) seconds. There we find the origin of, if not the entire Universe, then at least all structure in it, including galaxies like our own Milky Way. But this modern theory -- stunning though it is -- does not yet answer all our questions. Especially, it does not answer the question of "Why?" Why does our Universe exist? Why do we exist? What is the goal of a single human life, and what is the meaning of human existence?

To some, the more we know about the Universe from modern cosmology, the more it seems pointless from a human perspective. This is the ultimate paradox--having shunted humankind from the center of the cosmic stage, the modern theory thrusts us ethically right back into the spotlight. It puts the onus squarely on us to construct our own rationale for living and dying here on this small planet.

Remember this: all our telescopes looking billions of light years into space have not found one thing to compare in beauty, complexity or wonder to our own planet Earth.

Here is a gauntlet flung down--the challenge to devise a moral compass for ourselves as a species, to define the legitimate goals of human life, and to fashion a long term strategy for living on this planet over cosmic time. The Universe provides the backdrop for our existence but sheds no tears over us. Only we can decide what it means to be human.

Navigation Strip

PBS Online