Not a physicist? Not to Worry

Not a physicist? Not to worry… Growing up, I never gave much thought to science. Art and sports were my thing. I didn’t take physics in high school. Biology and chemistry? Yes, only because they were required in the Gary school system curriculum in the 60’s. The only thoughts I had about space were pretty much limited to Flash Gordon on TV, Sputnik and race to the Moon with the Russians.

I don’t remember thinking about the wonder and science behind all that. It was by a twist of fate, a failed eye exam, that in 1969 I ended up in navigator training at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. Night celestial navigation is one of the last courses in the program. Mather had this wonderful planetarium where we were introduced to the stars and constellations we would need to know to navigate by. Navigating with only a sextant and the stars was challenging, but fun. Sitting in our Cutlass convertible with Coriena and showing off by naming a bunch of stars and constellations was more fun.

Thinking and wondering beyond just the names of a few stars, trying to know and understand more about the cosmos, how it works and our place in it came for me, as it did for many others, in 1980 thanks to Carl Sagan’s series and book Cosmos: A Personal Voyage I never took this fascination to the point of wanting to become an astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson who credits Sagan for inspiring him. But, I was hooked.

I just finished reading Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is the next book up in the queue. These are just the latest. I have a whole shelf devoted to the Cosmos, the science, the meaning of it all and our species place in it. Besides many books by Sagan, the authors include Stephen Hawking, Brien Greene and a guy named Einstein. Alongside, you’ll find Yuval Noah Harrari, Daniel C. Dennett, Sylvia Earle Bill McKibben, Tim Flannery, Edward O. Wilson, Siddhartha Mukherjee, to name a few.

It’s all connected.

The Physics

The Evolution of every living thing (and extinct)

The Land

The Sea

The weather

It’s all connected.   

In his 80 page book, after Rovelli explains The General Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Quarts, The Standard Model, Black Holes, Time and Probability along with most everything else we know today about our world in a way even I can understand. At the end, Rovelli challenges us to consider “If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we?” 

It’s all connected. 

He is very clear that “we are not external observers” of this world. “We are situated within it. Our view of it is from within its midst. We are made up the same atoms and the same light signals as are exchanged between the pine trees in the mountains and the stars in the galaxies.” Like Carl Sagan said, “we are made of star stuff.” 

 “We are born and die as the stars are born and die, both individually and collectively.”  

Rovelli suggests we are a species of natural curiosity. But, we are the last of our group of species (the genus Homo) made up of equally curious species. In other words, and unlike the turtle that has been around for hundreds of millions of years, “we belong to a short-lived genus of species. All our cousins are already dead.” Our impact on the planet leaves him very pessimistic of our chances as a species or, at least, as a civilization. 

There have been five mass extinctions in our planet’s history. The sixth is more than likely to be of our own making. As Rovelli says, “The brutal climate change and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us.” 

Calving Patagonia Glacier
Surprise Glacier

None of the species in the first five extinctions saw it coming. He fears, “that soon we shall have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.”