It's life Jim, but not as we know it.
Very late in life I have become a philosopher. It doesn't pay much, but it helps to pass the time.
So, what has brought me to this late, great career change?
I was musing (as you do in your dotage) about the arrogance of the human species. Particularly I was thinking about religion and disaster movies. An odd combination – as well you might think.
It seems that humans have an innate capacity for doom-mongering and pessimism. Given a modicum of encouragement, we will cheerfully forecast the end of civilization, the beginning of a new Ice Age, global warming destroying the planet (Soylent Green style!), shale gas fracking causing planetary cataclysms, etc. - and the et etceteras are manifold.
However diverse, these dooms, for which we are seemingly unable to escape, have one unifying feature. We do survive. There is always some remnant of homo sapiens who rebuild the planet and some sort of civilization. We endure. We go on. Our grand children’s grandchildren are born and live their lives. We assume that throughout the débâcle the human species goes on.
It occurred to me that this is not inevitable. There are disastrous scenarios where we do not survive.
For example, take our Sun – Old Sol. It's been cheerfully chugging along for billions of years providing us with all the energy needed for life on our planet to develop and be sustained. It does so with such predictable regularity we assume it's continued predictability is inevitable. It is not. Sometimes stars go “wrong”.
Although this is a remote possibility, it is still a real possibility.
“Although no supernova has been observed in the Milky Way since Kepler's Star of 1604 (SN 1604), supernova remnants indicate that on average the event occurs about three times every century in the Milky Way. They play a significant role in enriching the interstellar medium with higher mass elements. Furthermore, the expanding shock waves from supernova explosions can trigger the formation of new stars.”
A comfort, but not an absolute guarantee. Most likely we will have destroyed the planet long before the sun jumps in and does us the favour.
But there is a quantitative difference, other disasters are for the most part survivable. The sun going nova is not.
And here's where philosophy and religion come in. We are often reminded that we are just a speck ( and a very small one at that ) in the cosmos – an insignificant little planet orbiting a very ordinary star.
Except for the earth ending in a kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Vogon induced way ( read the book if you don't know what I'm taking about ), we will all die in the nova explosion and, more importantly, so will all evidence that we were ever even here. That's a sobering concept. Imagine some time-warping space traveller arriving in our vicinity some billions of years hence. All that's left is a cloud of dirty dust where our solar system used to be. Everything ever known about the earth and the creatures it once sustained is gone and cannot be reconstructed. It is, for all practical purposes, as if we were never here at all.
This is not science fiction – it's science fact. Nova do occur in the galaxy at a somewhat predictable rate. If we are “unlucky” enough to become such a statistic then it's just hard cheese. We can do nothing about it. Our only hope then is the Voyager 1 ( http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/ ) which may, with luck, be found in a distant galaxy in a distant time and cause some real consternation among whichever of God's creatures it ends up.
Training their telescopes on the star pointed out in the diagram plastered on the side of the spacecraft, they might just make out a small nebula and puzzle about who ( or what ) might have made the odd craft they have discovered. ( I suspect our own reaction would be the same should an alien Voyager 1 turn up tomorrow! )
Using the newly acquired Philosopher’s Stone I earlier alluded to religion now becomes far more than the opiate of the people – it becomes imperative for remaining sane.
Leaving aside the objections of The God Delusion and the Voyager spacecraft,
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion ) we now need a Supreme Being in order simply to have a little confidence in our existence at all.
This may not scare you – but I confess to looking at things in a slightly different way.