On October 8th, 2019, there was the award ceremony for one of the most famous and prestigious prizes in the world: the Nobel Prize for physics. This prize represents, for the physicists, the culmination of an entire life of research and work. This year, the three winners are three researchers who dedicated their work to the space, the Universe… On which way the humanity, composed of 7 billion people, came to admire sky, composed of several hundreds of billions of galaxies?
From Aristotle to today: 2000 years of dreaming…
In 340 B.C., long before the first computer and even electricity were invented, a philosopher, Aristotle, had already understood that our planet, Earth, is round. This fact might seem to be harmless, but this is really one of the first major discoveries in astronomy’s history. Besides the great diversity of concrete uses (navigation, understanding of different earth phenomena…), this discovery has fastly induced the beginning of a confrontation which was going to last many centuries: astronomy and religion. This question appeared as a fundamental one with the first discoveries, because it comes with a concrete opposition in the human being’s mind. Factually, you can dissociate two different ways to make someone agree with you: conviction and persuasion. The conviction is based on a logical and rational reflexion, while the persuasion works by the uses of emotions, with rhetoric tools for example. Thus, even for Aristotle, our planet was at the center point of the Universe. Probably, his feelings didn’t allow him to think another way, and his persuasion was in a fight with his conviction.
Then, because the time never stops (on Earth, let’s be precise), many discoveries followed one another, sometimes accepted, sometimes refused by the religion and the states (sometimes even with violence). This opposition seems to be the mirror of the evolution of humanity which, according to different theories, seems less inclined to be convinced than persuaded. From these same theories, it seems to be easier to reach the heart of many people at the same moment than to reach their minds. To be honest, it’s not an easy thing to try to explain the fundamental concepts of the general relativity to an unknown person!
The 19th and 20th centuries were a turning point in the history of astronomy. With the industrial revolutions and societial evolutions, and also the discovery of a great number of new laws and theories in many fields (biology, cosmology…), it’s the whole science that has progressed. The understanding of the Universe is more precise than ever before, but the question of our place and our role in the Universe is still one of the most important unresolved mysteries.
Why are we here?
One of the explanations for the long struggles between religion and science can be understood mainly with the question of the position of humanity in the Universe. The precocious emergence of the religions in human history inform us that this question is very important for our species. In many beliefs, the Universe was geocentric, and the human being is the heart of this world. Obviously, these concepts had no choice other than evolve in parallel with science to become what they are today.
The science, by its nature, sustain the idea of the independence of the Universe compared to humanity. The Universe exist and nothing would be different without humanity. Even concerning the Big Bang, singularity in the spacetime at the beginning of our Universe, we can keep this sentence in our mind: “An expanding Universe does not exclude a Creator, but merely delineates the moment when he could have done his artwork” (Stephen HAWKING)
And for the future?
Finally, humanity and the Earth seem to be very small in this Universe. But if we exist, aren’t we privileged? Concretely, it seems impossible today, even in a more distant future, to leave the Earth and to establish a kind of interplanetary colonial system. However, all of us know that the destiny of the humankind and the destiny of the Earth are now more linked than ever, and the environmental issues (not so far from philosophical questions) are at the heart of young people’s concerns. Ultimately, there is many different reflexions which can take us to the point where we need to modify our conception of the relation between humanity and Earth. We can imagine that the role of the humanity is, today in the 21st century, not to consider us as the most intelligent species who can dominate the Earth, but consider us and the Earth in a permanent exchange, on a small planet at the limits of the Milky Way, among hundreds of billions of other galaxies…What a long way we have come since Aristotle! In any case, it seems easier now to understand our fascination for the stars: trying to understand the infinitely large to try to understand the infinitely human.
Petite Histoire de l’Univers – Du Big Bang à la fin du monde – Stephen HAWKING
A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes