Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos: We Are Made Of Stars

Sep 8, 2014 / Photography / image meaning / inspiration

I’m obsessed right now with the television show Cosmos. Netflix suggested it to me recently and I thought, “why not?”

Is it a surprise that I got hooked on this show? It’s all about the universe. It’s all about stars. It’s also not a surprise since I’m attracted to works that produce awe, are inspiring, and speak to the Concept of infinity. There were three things in the pilot episode that elicited awe.

Human History Can Fit in a Few Seconds

If we were to fit the entire cosmic history of our universe in a calendar year where January 1 at 12am was the Big Bang and December 31 at 12am is today, it would look like this.

Amazing visualization. I can’t get enough looking at it. That’s 14 billion years fit into a 12-month calendar.

What astounds me about this visualization is that our entire human history appears only in the last few seconds before December 31 12am. (I added the “you are here” for effect.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of the show, explains:

We humans evolved within the last hour, of the last day, of the cosmic year.

11:59pm, 46 seconds: All of recorded history occupies only the last 14 seconds, and every person you’ve ever heard of lives somewhere in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves—everything in the history books, happen here, in the last seconds of the cosmic calendar. Moses was born seven seconds ago, Buddha six seconds ago, Jesus five seconds ago, Mohammed three seconds ago. It was not even two seconds ago, that for better or worse, the the two halves of the earth discovered each other, and it was only in the very last second of the cosmic calendar, that we began to use science to reveal nature’s secrets and her laws. The scientific method is so powerful that in a mere four centuries, it has taken us from Gallileo’s first look through a telescope at another world to leaving our footprints on the moon. It has allowed us to look out, across space and time, to discover where and when we are in the cosmos.

All the achievements in literature, art, medicine, all the lives that we’ve read about when we talk about history–all happened within that last few seconds of the cosmic calendar. Think about it. This visualization produces awe within me.

There are two ways to react to this perspective. The first way is to say, “we are totally insignificant in the whole scheme of things, what is the point of it all.” So it’s all about nihilism.

The second way is to say, “wow, we are totally insignificant in the whole scheme of things, so I can really be who I want to be.” What our parents, neighbors, and society think is best for us do not matter. Though we might look foolish to everybody else, a failure, that does not matter. We just need to do what we long to do.

It’s clear which way I’m leaning towards.

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

One implication that comes out of this cosmic calendar visualization is a possible answer to pessimism that latches on to any new endeavor. What do I photograph? What do I write about? What do I want to do? There is nothing new under the sun.

In thinking about this cosmic calendar, we have only been in existence for a few seconds in the whole scheme of the universe. There must be undiscovered realms and ideas that have yet to be discovered.

There is a famous line that goes “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” A patent clerk in the late 1800s apparently said it (misattributed based on this blog entry). Subsequent events clearly prove that this saying is not true.

The next time I complain that there is nothing to photograph, nothing to do, I will have to think about this cosmic calendar.

We are Made of Stars

Another perspective that struck me as important is what Neil deGrasse Tyson says:

See those lights flashing like papparazi? Each one is a supernovaäóîthe blazing death of a giant star. Stars die and are born in places like this one, a stellar nursery, they condense like raindrops from giant clouds of gas and dust. They get so hot, that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen we breath, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. All was cooked in the fiery hearts of long vanished stars. You, me, everyone, we are made of star-stuff.

Awesome sentiment. We are made of stars.

What he says is similar to what Joseph Campbell (one of the biggest influences in my work) says in his book, The Outer Reaches of Inner Space:

…It then occurred to me that outer space is within inasmuch as the laws of space are within us; outer and inner space are the same. We know, furthermore, that we have actually been born from space, since it was out of primordial space that the galaxy took form, of which our life-giving sun is a member. And this earth, of whose material we are made, is a flying satellite of that sun. We are, in fact, productions of this earth. We are, as it were, its organs. Our eyes are the eyes of this earth; our knowledge is the earth’s knowledge. And the earth, as we now know, is a production of space.

Isn’t that marvelous? I love this idea. We are made of stars.

man in business suit with light emanating from his face suggesting enlightenment
Illuminated. Cyanotype Print with Digital Drawing, 2014. 17” x 11.2”. Limited Edition of 12.

On The Importance Of The Future

My Prize Winning Stupid Idea

Life Lessons from David Hockney and His Views on Photography
The World Under Construction
An Infinity Within The Finite

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