Constellation Fornax, Hubble EXtreme Deep Field

The Age of the Universe: Who Cares?

Image: Constellation Fornax, Hubble EXtreme Deep Field

A coworker of mine asked me a question the other day that is simultaneously so simple, yet so difficult to answer succinctly. We’ve talked about some scientific facts, and he expressed his apathy concerning the age of the universe, among some other religiously-controversial topics. He hasn’t done the research to understand how old the universe or Earth is, and doesn’t plan to, because he doesn’t see why it’s important.

And that was the question he asked me. Why does it matter that he know the age of universe? 6,000 years or 13.7 billion, how does that affect him? It doesn’t shorten his commute. It doesn’t help him pick out deals at the grocery store. It doesn’t inform how many kids he’ll have years from now. So who cares?

And while I gave an off-the-cuff version of this answer in the moment, this thought deserves a lengthy treatment. It’s not a new question, for sure. And others have written and spoken eloquently on it before, no doubt. But I can offer my perspective.

Caring about the age of the universe, of our galaxy, solar system, and planet, doesn’t necessarily affect every aspect of your life. (Though maybe more than you’d think; we’ll get to that.) The more mundane choices or tasks you make daily are as removed from that question as we are from the effects of Neptune’s gravity on us.

But I believe putting value in knowing these facts represents and develops two very positive qualities that can enrich your life.

The first is the idea of valuing the scientific method. Everyone alive benefits from the inquiries of the past and developments of technology that give us phones, cars, medicine, heat, and more. And to be ignorant of where these conveniences came from is to lack appreciation for the work of those who care before you, and to have a narrow perspective of what is to come.

In this sense, my coworker’s objection is quite similar to expressing disinterest in history, or politics outside of the United States. I shouldn’t have to parrot any maxims about being “doomed to repeat oneself”, and to believe that events on the other side of the world do not affect you is to be increasingly mistaken in this more and more open and international community we live in. A fundamental question like the age of the cosmos seems similarly prime for a positive perspective on its importance.

I believe the age of the universe to be an important data point in service of understanding the life cycles of stars and galaxies, as well as enabling the fact of a millions-year-old Earth that supports other scientific research. Many scientific principles build upon one another, even across fields. So even the more immediate practical science and its applications likely have at their roots this question at some point. If it’s all connected, you can’t exactly pick and choose.

People in the past and today work hard to refine and use knowledge of our world to help humanity. Though I’ll readily admit that some scientific investigations may or may not technically matter to anyone but the researchers and won’t have wide-reaching implications. To me, they are still working in the service of progress, of pushing the boundaries of our understanding in what I think is one of few truly noble, timeless efforts: discovery.

The second positive quality is an appreciation and wonderment of the nature of the world around us. This is not too different from the first quality, but I chose to focus the first on the human element, while this one on the natural world.

The common person thousands of years ago looked up at the stars and saw shiny dots to connect into mythical creatures. The common person today can know of those constellations, but also know that these stars are farther away than the distance they’ll walk their entire lives. That is humbling. They can know that the light hitting their eyes traveled for years, from our perspective, to reach them. And despite that, due to relativity, the light felt that long journey all in one instant. That is baffling.

The human being alive before Darwin published On The Origin of Species could appreciate the diversity of life. But long after Darwin we can map out animals’ histories and see how their ancestors parted from one another millions of years ago. We can paint a deeper, more thoughtful picture of what is happening around us, the simple mechanisms at work over long periods of time.

As is so often the case when discussing science, I find John Boswell’s Symphony of Science series aptly placed. There are many, many choice quotes in this music video especially, for those that can appreciate vocoded scientists.

[Neil deGrasse Tyson]
If you’re scientifically literate,
The world looks very different to you
And that understanding empowers you

[Carolyn Porco]
The quest for the truth, in and of itself,
Is a story that’s filled with insights

[PZ Myers]
I think that science changes the way your mind works
To think a little more deeply about things

We might be standing, side-by-side, looking at the same beautiful work of art. And we can both point to the pretty landscape or the cute face. But for those who have studied the artist*, know their effort to put meaning into their craft, recognize the techniques at work and their expert execution, and see the piece’s place in time… for those people? I believe we have a richer appreciation of what we see.

And what we see is not only the world around us and its amazing properties and intricacies, but also a reflection of life itself, enriched by the pursuit of knowledge and experience.

* Though by “artist”, I don’t necessarily mean a god. The properties of the universe and the effort of humanity as a whole to discover them demonstrably fills that role.

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