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This incredible meditation will help solve your existential dread
Existential dread, meet astronomical wonder.
- The universe is huge, and we're not. This fact has given rise to countless existential crises.
- You don't have to be left in dread after looking at the night sky, however.
- Astronomer Michelle Thaller has an excellent meditation on why the vastness of space can be revitalizing.
Who hasn't looked up at the night sky and felt small? The vastness of space and the sudden realization of our own insignificance is enough to spark anxiety in anyone.
It doesn't have to leave you in a pit of existential despair, though. Just ask NASA Astronomer and the star of Big Think's Ask an Astronomer series, Michelle Thaller.
A meditation on cosmic insignificance.
Dr. Thaller recently appeared in an episode of the Meditative Story podcast. For those who haven't heard of it, it is a series that combines guided mindfulness meditation with a well-told story about a transformative experience in someone's life. In this episode, Dr. Thaller explains her childhood interest in the night sky and how she balances living a full life with the knowledge that the vast cosmos above us dwarfs us into irrelevance.
She then discusses the joy she finds in looking at the heavens by describing a typical night at the observatory:
"I walk back through the woods and look back up at the sky, I feel unequal to the task of even trying to understand what that means. In one evening, a dozen star systems, complete with any planets or life around them, came to a violent and sudden end, blown to bits. A dozen. In a few hours. This goes on around us every night, every day, every hour.
And from the debris of that death comes every thing, literally every atom, we need for life. Spreading their nuclear-furnaced debris back into space, the galaxy now has more of the stuff of life to work with. I wouldn't be here tonight had many millions of stars not died before. Some atoms in my body were formed, literally, a hundred thousand trillion miles away from where I sit tonight. I am vast. Me. And I am alive. And I'm soaked to the core of my existence in death; unimaginably vast death. Birth and death bonded together cheek to jowl, so tightly that one leaks into the other, across a galaxy. That is what I am. That is what you are."
Of course, even an astronomer can be overwhelmed by the cosmos. Dr. Thaller offers us some advice for when this happens:
"Often, I feel overwhelmed with even my small, limited perception of the larger universe and my deep connection to it. Sometimes, I honestly can only deal with it by letting go. At this scale, so large and so small, there are no expectations. Everything can drop away. Everything about you has been here for the entirety of time, and everything that you are will utterly vanish in the blink of an eye.
This is what you are; there is nothing to do about it. To be so significant and yet so insignificant all at once is the essence and the balance of what it means to be alive."
Can meditation really help deal with cosmic anxiety?
Yes, and it can help you deal with regular anxiety, too, as David Goleman explains in this clip.
Who else has touched on these ideas?
Besides Thaller, plenty of other thinkers have looked up at the heavens, considered how small we are compared to it, and written about the anxiety it can produce.
Carl Sagan, the ever-loved educator of millions, knew as well as anybody how tiny we are compared to the vastness of space and somehow managed to make this anxiety a source of inspiration:
"The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky."
The French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus understood that the heavens could be the cause of a person suddenly feeling small and meaningless. In the novel The Stranger, he has the main character explain:
"Gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."
Camus' philosophy of Absurdism centers around human attempts to find meaning in an utterly meaningless, indifferent cosmos that accidentally foils our efforts to make sense of it. While the vast heavens aren't out to crush our attempts to find meaning, considering the vastness of space is a pretty easy way to conclude that nothing you do really matters. If that doesn't cause anxiety, nothing will.
Camus suggests that we embrace this conflict between our desire for meaning and the indifference of the heavens. How to go about doing that is another problem.
Not everyone has seen this vastness as a good or even neutral thing though. H.P. Lovecraft used the vast, uncaring cosmos as a source of horror and madness in his stories. His characters often find themselves face to face with the cosmic insignificance of humanity and rarely come out of it whole.
Contrast his quote with Thaller's:
"Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes."
Not quite as optimistic, is he?
The universe is unfathomably vast, filled with ageless stars that will live for uncompromisable eons and then die in cataclysmic explosions. We are small creatures that will live for the cosmic blink of an eye, and yet we are connected to the universe that at once thinks nothing of us and comprises us.
If these thoughts don't help ease the anxiety of being so small compared to everything else, I don't know what does.
To hear the podcast, follow the link here, or press play at the top of the page.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.