The Value Of Perspective

Professor Brian Cox, National Geographic guest editor for March, reveals why we should listen more carefully to the astronauts.

Published 5 Mar 2018, 16:43 GMT
Professor Brian Cox
Photograph by Nicky J Sims

From the surface, Earth feels limitless and permanent, which is perhaps why it took so long to accept that it is not immobile at the centre of the universe. From space, our world appears finite and fragile, a tumbling grain of dust. Astronauts are not delicate individuals by nature; author Norman Mailer described Buzz Aldrin as all meat and stone, dependable as a tractor, yet with a hint of unpredictability. But, as exemplified by “Beyond the Blue Marble” in this issue, a shift in perspective of just a few hundred miles turns astronauts into poets. “This planet is not terra firma. It is a delicate flower and it must be cared for. It’s lonely. It’s small. It’s isolated, and there is no resupply.

And we are mistreating it. Clearly the highest loyalty we should have is not to our own country or our own religion or our hometown or even to ourselves. It should be to, number two, the family of man, and number one, the planet at large,” wrote Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter.

Science delivers a complementary shift in perspective, intellectual rather than physical. As altitude allows us to perceive one Earth, so science allows us to perceive one history.

There are competing theories as to how life began; to my mind the most compelling is that it emerged in deep-sea hydrothermal vents 3.8 billion years ago. The early appearance of life, not long after the oceans formed on the cooling young planet, suggests that the transition from geochemistry to bio-chemistry is probable, given the right conditions.

Photograph by NASA

This is interesting, because if vent systems were the cradle of life on Earth, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn (the subject of this issue’s Explore feature) has discovered another potential cradle. The small moon Enceladus is dominated by fountains of ice and water vapour which burst through the surface to form the outer E-ring surrounding the planet. The fountains are thought to be created by hydrothermal vent systems on the floor of a saltwater ocean deep beneath the frozen crust.

If there is life on Enceladus, it will be simple, single-celled life at best. The deep history of life on Earth informs us that the transition from single-celled organisms to a spacefaring civilisation was a lengthy and tortuous one. There is no evidence of complex life on Earth before the Ediacaran biota emerged around 570 million years ago, which means it took more than three billion years—a quarter of the age of the universe—to secure this evolutionary leap.

This suggests a challenging possibility. Whilst single-celled life may be common throughout the universe, complex multicellular organisms could be extremely rare. There may be very few places in the average galaxy where atoms have come to contemplate atoms, as the physicist Richard Feynman memorably put it. Earth, notwithstanding its physical insignificance and fragility, would then be a rare and precious world after all. I believe we should take this possibility seriously; in doing so we would surely be compelled to modify our behaviour on our delicate flower. We should listen more carefully to the astronauts.

The March 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine is on sale now.

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