"Cosmos" Week 11: "Life here began out there".
This was hands-down my favorite episode of “Cosmos” yet, because I have an enormous soft spot for the origins of life and for the fragility of civilization. And these particular topics lend themselves well to the soft science approach of the series, with the important bits being things that can be easily explained even to a lay audience.
And it’s always exciting to find something new right in the wheelhouse of your interest. I’d read of the meteorite fragments that contained trapped pockets of gas that matched Mars’ atmosphere just about perfectly. And the organic molecules we’ve found that appear to have hitched rides. And even the theories that life may have been seeded onto Earth rather than initially developing here. It had always seemed interesting but ultimately just sort of pushing back the explanation for life’s origins one step without illumination. So if life came from Mars instead of Earth, we’re still at the same starting point of trying to understand how it happened in the first place.
But I’d never heard the narrative of repeated extinctions of all microbial life, followed by a reseeding from our own and other ejected detritus over time. Something about that is so fantastically beautiful of a story that it catches your breath. And Tyson topped it further with the explanation of our passing through interstellar clouds, and exchanging microbial life during our passages. The notion of life, shared life, spreading and dotting its way across all the thousands of light years from shared origins is simply exquisite. I’d always in my mind seen these billions of solar systems as islands untouched by others except in the occasional case of collision or supernova annihilation. But to have them interconnected is simply gorgeous.
On the other hand, I do wish they’d explored a bit more the framing device of storytelling allowing us a sort of immortality. There’s a school of thought that from a certain perspective, civilization is what happens when you replace the dominant way information evolves with memes instead of genes. And I don’t mean funny cat pictures with clever captions. Before the term got co-opted for such things, the word “meme” meant an idea that is passed along. These compete, the more capable ones survive, subject to every bit as much natural selection as organisms. But ideas can change so much faster than genetics, that natural selection of this information medium takes place at thousands of times the speed. What might have taken ten million years to develop on the level of an organism takes place in ten thousand at the level of a civilization. Memes are the genes of civilization.
But that didn’t overshadow an excellent episode, which also touched on that other favorite of mine: the fragility of civilization. A wayward asteroid, a detonating nova, a new ice age, massive volcanoes, a dozen different events have occurred throughout natural history that would destroy our civilization. And for the first time in our planet’s history, a species has evolved with the capacity for suicide, even if through dumb stubbornness instead of nihilism. Destroy the world? Ha! We are so arrogant in such presumptions. We can slowly die through poisoning our environment, or in a flash of nuclear armageddon, but life will still go on with barely a hiccup in the grand scheme of this little pebble whirling around the sun.
The show tugged at me the way the trailer for Interstellar did last week. It called on us to grow up as a species and think for the long term. It reminded me of the old Arthur C. Clarke quote: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program”.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.