The View from the Center of the Universe

Luigi Vitali in conversation with Nancy Ellen Abrams

Nancy Ellen Abrams, scientist, philosopher, lawyer and musician, is the co-au- thor, with Joel R. Primack one of the most important cosmologists, of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Co- smology Could Transform the World. Her latest book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet, was released this year. Nancy has always been intrigued by science’s border with myth, since stu- dying with Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago, where she has a degree in the history and philosophy of science. In her work she strives as a philo- sopher to put the discoveries of modern cosmology into a cultural context, and as a musician to communicate their possible meanings at a deeper level. Nancy is also an activist engaged in the role of science in shaping a new po- litics. As a lawyer and Fulbright scholar she has worked for the International Juridical Association in Rome, a European environmental law think tank, as well as the Ford Foundation and the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress. She also co-created the technique of Scientific Mediation, a pro- cess that allows government agencies to make informed and insightful policy decisions on issues where science is crucial but disputed. DUST met Nancy to discuss about Cosmology, the universe and our place within it. 

Luigi Vitali in conversation with Nancy Ellen Abrams

Nancy Ellen Abrams, scientist, philosopher, lawyer and musician, is the co-au- thor, with Joel R. Primack one of the most important cosmologists, of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Co- smology Could Transform the World. Her latest book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet, was released this year. Nancy has always been intrigued by science’s border with myth, since stu- dying with Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago, where she has a degree in the history and philosophy of science. In her work she strives as a philo- sopher to put the discoveries of modern cosmology into a cultural context, and as a musician to communicate their possible meanings at a deeper level. Nancy is also an activist engaged in the role of science in shaping a new po- litics. As a lawyer and Fulbright scholar she has worked for the International Juridical Association in Rome, a European environmental law think tank, as well as the Ford Foundation and the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress. She also co-created the technique of Scientific Mediation, a pro- cess that allows government agencies to make informed and insightful policy decisions on issues where science is crucial but disputed. DUST met Nancy to discuss about Cosmology, the universe and our place within it. 

Luigi - When it comes to scientific cosmology, many of us have blurry ideas about the outcome of the latest discoveries. In certain ways, the common un- derstanding we share is an image of the universe as it was defined in the 17th century. However these last decades, due to improvements in the field, are now being called “the golden age of cosmology.” And within this revolution, you have had a front row seat. Your husband, Joel R. Primack, is one of the scientist who in 1984 proposed the daring theory of “dark matter” and “dark energy” which has changed the paradigm for the understanding of the Cosmos. Before proceeding, can you briefly explain what this scientific revolution is all about, and what science can now tell us about the structure of the universe?

Nancy - In the 1970s the great cosmological mystery was this: if the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn’t the expanding universe today just a bigger soup of particles? Instead, hundreds of billions of spiral and elliptical galaxies are scattered throughout the visible universe -- but not randomly: the galaxies lie along invisible filaments, like glitter tossed on lines of glue. Where several big filaments intersect, a cluster of hundreds of galaxies can form. The pattern of filaments is expanding, but not the individual galaxies. Why? What happened to the soup? Where did all this structure come from?

The answer has been the revolutionary “Double Dark” theory, which says that everything astronomers can see – all the stars, planets, and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, plus all the distant galaxies – totals less than half of one percent of the contents of the universe. The universe is almost entirely made of two dy- namic, invisible presences, not made of atoms or the parts of atoms, unknown and undreamed of until the 20th century. They are “dark matter” and “dark ener- gy,” in perpetual competition with each other, with dark matter’s gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and thus created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.

Wild as it seems, the evidence for the Double Dark theory is overwhelming and still pouring in. Where did the invisible filaments come from? They’re explained

by a companion theory called “Cosmic Inflation.” According to Cosmic Inflation, the filaments are wrinkles in spacetime that attract matter gravitationally. The wrinkles were the last random quantum fluctuations before the Big Bang, which at the Big Bang got frozen into the newly created spacetime. As space has expanded, the wrinkles have served as the blueprint for where galaxies would form in the future universe – a blueprint laid down before the Big Bang had even created the matter that would follow it.

As dark matter moved toward the wrinkles, it shepherded clouds of primeval hydrogen and helium (the only atoms that came straight out of the Big Bang) into the cores of galaxies, where they condensed into stars. Stars then created all the other natural elements – the other hundred or so atoms in the periodic table (called heavy atoms), such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon. And this process goes on. When stars explode in supernovas or other violent star de- aths, the heavy atoms are blown out into space and thus are literally stardust. The stardust streams through space for eons till it’s picked up in the gravitatio- nal field of some newly forming star and perhaps forms a rocky planet like ours. You are made of stardust from thousands of different stars that exploded in different eras. Your body is 90% stardust by weight; the rest is mostly hydrogen (in your H2O). The entire 13.8 billion year history of the universe is reflected in your body at this very moment.

Living creatures anywhere in the universe must be made of stardust, because none of the other main ingredients – dark matter, dark energy, hydrogen, or he- lium – is complex enough to be able to evolve into life, let alone into consciou- sness. Stardust is only .0001 (one hundredth of one percent) of this universe, so creatures like us must be rare, and possibly even unique.

For an understanding of these ideas, you can read my books. The New Uni- verse and the Human Future is a largely visual presentation of the universe, in color throughout, with embedded astro-videos, and ways the cosmos can enlarge our thinking about the political world. The View from the Center of the Universe is a deeper book, no color pictures, but a real invitation to take your place in a meaningful universe and feel at home in a way never before possible.

Luigi - We can see that a significant characteristic of our time is the absence of a sense of tradition that had previously been a central tenet to human civi- lization since its origin. In our current culture, the tradition as well as the past are no longer perceived as a source of security, authority or righteousness, but rather remain a source of limitation. They are structures that are now meant only to be overcome, by looking forward to the future. What stands at the center of our civilization today is the idea of progress: the desire for a more comfor- table future, in which humanity will be liberated from the oppressions of the past through scientific and technical achievements. If science, as the force of progress, has effectively stripped both tradition and the past of their centrality, it is now science that sits at the center, with the meaning and the authority to deliver to us a new image of reality.

What I see in your work is the hope, the awareness, the responsibility and the passion of two scientists who are putting numbers, facts, and intuitions to- gether, trying to make sense of the sky, hoping the earth will follow. Because somehow the urgency is to rebuild a shared sense of reality. Certainly no one is nostalgic for a world of the past in which traditions were linking the cosmic order to the political and social structure of society. But what you seem to teach

is that we could still learn from looking up into the sky something about our life here on earth. How might this work?

Nancy - There is a gaping hole in modern thinking that may never have existed in human society before. It’s so common that hardly anyone notices it, while global catastrophes plague our planet and personal crises of existential confu- sion plague our private lives. The hole is this: we have no meaningful sense of how we and our fellow humans fit into the big picture.

Are we the handiwork of a loving God who planned the universe? Are we insi- gnificant motes marooned on a lonely rock in endless space? Is our purpose to carry out the will of an invisible God? Is it to find harmony with each other, our planet, and our universe? In every culture known to anthropology, people could have answered questions like these with confidence, even though their answers would probably seem quaint or absurd to us now. They knew what their cosmos was like because they lived in a world where everyone around them shared it. We don’t.

Despite all we’ve gained in this scientific age, we’ve lost something important. Even in a roomful of neighbors it’s highly unlikely that everyone will have the same mental picture of large-scale reality and even less likely that any of their pictures is based on evidence. We’re divided on the most fundamental que- stion of any society: what universe are we living in? With no consensus on this question and no way even to think constructively about how we humans might fit into the big picture, we have no big picture. Without a big picture, we are very small people.

We function day to day in a fabulously high-tech, fast-paced world, but modern technology for billions of users is essentially magical. Astronomy appears to have little relevance. People think of astronomical discoveries simply as inspi- ration for kids, or a fun topic for five minutes of clever dinner party conversation, but there’s no widely understood connection between what’s happening in di- stant space and us, right here. The truth is, however, that there is a profound connection between our lack of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems.

Many religious believers are still convinced that the earth was created exactly as it is a few thousand years ago, while many who respect science believe that the earth is just an average planet of a average star in a universe where no place is special. They’re both wrong. Both groups are operating within mental pictures of the universe that we now know are historical artifacts.

People tend to see time symmetrically: those who believe in a few-thousand year past are unable to imagine a big future – and are therefore unable to care about it. Without caring, there is no motivation to invest during our own lifetimes in protecting and even launching humanity’s cosmic future. To appreciate how extraordinary humanity is in the Double Dark cosmos and how absolutely worth saving, we need a shared understanding of the immensity of time it took the universe to make us.

The new cosmology presents a unifying, believable picture of the larger reality in which our planet, our lives, and the ideas of all our religions are embedded. We must learn from our traditions how to hold something sacred, how to create art that touches the heart and spirit, and how to dedicate ourselves to a higher purpose. But tradition can’t give us our picture of the universe or our origin story.

Luigi - Today it seems that the universe and cosmological theories are practi- cally irrelevant to most individuals in western society. Even the most ground- breaking discoveries in cosmology have no effect on our daily lives. What does the notion of an expanding universe have to do with me? Observing the infinity of cosmos from our seemingly insignificant point, we might be induced to rein- force the idea that, in this arbitrary and cold universe, we might be better off ta- king a selfish advantage of life, without trying to understand the bigger picture.

Since it’s not the responsibility of science to assert some sort of meaning, or to suggest a relation between our own existence and the way the universe wor- ks, this effort to understand the universe doesn’t seem to help us understand ourselves.

Cosmology remains dissociated from our lives because science can only de- scribe phenomena, and alone can’t provide a cosmological vision that takes into consideration human meanings, our existences or our behaviors.

So my question is: how can a cosmological vision produce culture? Intended not merely as some scientific debates or other interdisciplinary disputes, but as culture, meaning, an interpretation of reality that would effect all the aspects of life itself, influencing art, music, philosophy and even politics. In your point of view, how far away are we from this happening?

Nancy - You ask how daily life could possibly be impacted by the expansion of the universe. But what is your daily life impacted by now? Your values? Your doubts? Your understanding of how time works? Your sense of what is possible vs. impossible? If any of these affect your daily life, then cosmology affects you, because a new cosmology will change them all.

Humanity has told thousands of origin stories, explaining where the world came from and how it happened, usually through the doings of gods and other symbolic creatures. But the new cosmology is humanity’s first scientifically ac- curate origin story. It is built on well-tested theories like evolution, relativity, and quantum mechanics. The past few decades have been a golden age of astronomy and cosmology - for the experts. But every cosmology in history has been presented to the culture not through mathematics but through art. Where would Christianity be without stained glass and paint? No one will really experience the new cosmology from scientific explanations alone. The great challenge is to frame this knowledge accurately but also artistically, powerfully, emotionally, as what it truly is – our species’ most sacred myth. Art that could do this would be the most subversive art in history. It would subvert the tradi- tions that are killing us. It would launch a cosmic future. It would be the greatest legacy.

The new scientific cosmology is the first origin story that’s not local. It’s global. It was created by collaboration among people from many religions and cultures all around the world. Despite enormous diversity in their food, clothing, gender, languages, beliefs, relationships, and every other detail of their daily lives, every one of those scientists worked by the same standards. It can be done.

Luigi - In our last issue, we discussed multitude, as the form that characteri- zes our generation. It’s a useful concept in describing that inclusive, diversified ensemble or mass to which everybody can belong, without requiring any iden- tification with boundaries, leaders, national identities, common will or beliefs. Indeed, what our generation identifies with is mainly the idea of the Self. What we are is a multitude of separated selves, in which we can all feel part of the same entity through information sharing and interpersonal communication. Wi- thin the multitude, the kind of language that prevails seems to be simplified, immediate, easy to consume, easy to share, easy to give attention to and most able to reach the largest quantity of people possible.

Simply put, on one hand we have the risk to conform all aspects of our life to this standard — remaining entertained, connected and apathetic together. On the other hand, there is an unprecedented potential. First, a message can be sent, received and understood by the largest number of people in history. And secondly, being part of a multitude of individual selves makes us responsible for our own identities, awarenesses, relationships with others and with the who- le. The self becomes clearly the only place where to dismantle the forms of the past and elaborate a more accurate and sustainable understanding of reality, and of our future. We own ourselves. We hold all the potential.

Considering these capabilities and weaknesses of our generation, what do you think could activate a single awareness? What would be the language for it? 

From your point of view, what could promote the missing aggregation of all these separated selves?

Nancy - The “aggregation of all these separated selves” of your generation is not missing – it already exists, but to tap its power you have to understand what it is and how it can exist. There’s a concept called “emergence” that’s beco- ming central to many fields of science. It says that when any interacting system gets complex enough, the system turns into something completely new. The individual parts remain what they are, but seen together they merge and so- mething radically original emerges, which follows new laws. Emergence is a theory of how something qualitatively new, whose nature cannot be predicted, and which can even follow new laws of nature, can emerge from large enough aggregations. Let me explain how it works with an analogy.

Ants are very simple creatures. They can recognize a dozen or so pheromones (scent molecules) and can sense where those pheromones are more intense. They also can tell the difference between meeting two ants in a minute and 200 ants. That’s about the extent of their individual communication abilities. But if we observe 10,000 ants in a colony, a “swarm logic” has emerged. The colony is continually adjusting the number of ants foraging for food, based on the number of mouths to feed, how much food is stored already in the nest, how much food is available in the vicinity, and whether other colonies are out there competing. Yet no ant understands any of this. The colony can engineer the construction of an anthill as high as a man and as busy as a city, yet no one is in charge. What is going on? Where does swarm logic come from?

It emerges from the complexity of the interactions among the ants. An ant co- lony is self-organizing. From the formation of galaxies to the evolution of life to the folding of proteins to the growth of cities to the disruption of the global climate, emergence creates utterly new phenomena out of interactions of sim- pler things.

We humans are part of this pattern, like everything else. Almost everything we do collectively spawns an emergent phenomenon – so for example, people bartering things has led to the global economy, an emergent phenomenon so complicated and unpredictable that not only does no one know the rules; the professionals don’t even agree on what the rules should be about. The ne- ver-ending effort to get people to behave decently toward one another has spawned governments. Our human desire for gossip has spawned the media. Economies, governments and the media are all emergent phenomena – like ant colonies. They follow new and complicated rules that often cannot be derived from the behavior of the parts that make them up. Emergent phenomena are real and have immense power over our lives, but they are not human or hu- manlike, even though they arise from human activities – any more than a two meter tall anthill is antlike, even though it’s made by ants.

Something is almost certainly emerging from the interactions of your genera- tion’s seemingly separate selves, and the creative and inspirational powers of that emerging something might be accessed if its nature could be defined.

Luigi - It can be said that, in order to discover the best perspective from which to observe and understand a concept such a God, one might best look beyond the boundaries of religion. If we had to follow the narratives and customs of institutional religions, we would often end up faced with those man-made trai- ts of God, which carry implications other than the revealing of truths. If the question would be - Is this story real? - than we will have too many reasons to answer - No it’s not - and it would be enough to reject all the intuitions at the base of these stories. But if one steps out from all the preconceptions, and opens themselves up to the possibilities, he would possibly find a more sui- table viewpoint from which the various religious assumptions and revelations somehow would start to make sense.

Let me ask you about your personal experience. For many years you had an atheist point of view, or were simply uninterested in such unsolvable problems.

Then your perspective changed and it seems your life did too. How did such a shift take place?

Nancy - For most of my life, “God” and “real” in the same sentence would have been a contradiction in terms. Every idea of God I had ever encountered see- med either physically impossible or so vague as to be meaningless. I hardly thought about religion and certainly didn’t believe in any God. If I had been a happy woman, that would never have changed. But I wasn’t. I had an eating disorder. Over the same period that my husband was discovering the nature of the universe – and while he and I were coauthoring books interpreting these discoveries – I was working a 12-step recovery program. Recovery from any addiction presents a huge and unsparing motivation to find what the recovery program calls, “God as we understood him.” Not necessarily as anyone else has. For me believability was irrelevant. I have never had any interest in a God that has to be believed in, and that was not about to change.

I was only interested in God if it could actually exist in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don’t need to believe in these things; they exist, and we can choose to learn more about them, or not. For me, the idea of God simply doesn’t matter unless it’s about something real. But I don’t mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology, and our pivotal moment in history. Se- riously, I never expected to find such a God, although I suppose every seeker harbors some remote hope. In fact my favorite quotation is, “Bring me into the company of those who seek the truth, and deliver me from those who have found it.”

Naïve people, I told myself, might believe in higher powers, but not me. It was really hard for me to keep an open mind about such an abused and misused idea as God. And yet, I experienced the first period in my life when food was not a problem. I found my consciousness less disposed to denial and self-deceit, more honest, and more courageous. My eating habits greatly improved. I was happier. I got along better with everybody. Some aspect of my consciousness was clearly a better controller of my behavior than my default consciousness, and when I addressed that aspect as “God” I was somehow able to conjure up that consciousness and strengthen it in me, even though I did not believe any God existed.

I realized that the question I should be asking myself was not, “Does God exist?” That’s a waste of time, because it can’t be answered without a defini- tion of God that everyone agrees with. I realized I could only find a real God if I looked for it in what exists. For the first time I asked myself, “Could anything actually exist in the scientific universe that is worthy of being called God?” My focus had shifted from what exists to what matters.

Suddenly a coherent big picture became possible, because from a cosmic per- spective the answer to my question became yes. Yes, there is something who- se existence is entirely consistent with a cutting-edge scientific outlook, yet it truly fulfills the need for God.

My new book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet, proposes this radically new way to think about God in the modern universe – a way that is scientifically responsible, immensely satisfying, and surprisingly fertile. It has changed my life.

Luigi - We could definitely take from science many images or metaphors that would help us redefine a unifying narrative or modern myth explaining how the universe works and how our behaviors are connected within it.

Do you believe that science, above all other fields, can provide the tools for creating a less anthropomorphic and more effective narrative about God? How paradoxical is it to think that science can rehabilitate religions, or at least spi- rituality?

Nancy - You may wonder why we are still talking about God in the modern world. Isn’t rationality enough? It wasn’t enough for me. It might be enough for people like Richard Dawkins at Oxford, who seem never to have had a perso- nal problem they couldn’t solve. But for those billions of us who need a good metaphor to get access to our spiritual potential, God is the most powerful concept there is. Everyone over the age of two or three has some notion of God. The challenge is to think of God in a way that is completely coherent with our reliable knowledge yet helps us experience and draw from our deep connection with the larger reality. Science is the perfect catalyst to rehabilitate religion. Who else can do it?

Science alone can’t tell us with certainty what’s true, since there’s always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what cannot be true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval picture of earth as the center of the heavenly spheres could not be true, even though he could not prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there’s no point in arguing. It’s over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That’s how science moves forward. What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left? I began to look one by one at the characteristics that made

God unbelievable and ask how much each one actually mattered, or whether it was merely traditional. I discovered that the traditional characteristics of God that conflict with science are not the ones that matter. We can let them go. It’s amazing how many arbitrary characteristics people have tacked onto our ideas of God, simply from tradition. These additional requirements divide us from each other as well as from our rational selves. Any religion today that assigns to God powers that can’t exist in this universe sets its members up for constant doubt, which in turn requires of them an exhausting effort to jack up their faith in order to fight the evidence. This is self-destructive. We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal.

These are characteristics of a God that can’t be real: 1. God existed before the universe.
2. God created the universe.
3. God knows everything.

4. God intends everything that happens.
5. God can choose to violate the laws of nature.

God could not have existed before the universe or created it. The whole hi- story of the universe shows us that complexity evolves from simplicity. At the Big Bang there was nothing but free particles and energy, not even atoms, yet over time the galaxies, stars, elements, planets, and life slowly evolved. That’s how our universe works. So something as complex as a God who could plan and create a universe could not have been there to start things off. What’s more, it’s not clear where “there” would be, since cosmologists are continually pushing back the beginning. The beginning used to be the Big Bang, but the larger theory of cosmic inflation explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang. It has made five predictions; four have been tested so far and all four have been confirmed by observation. So astronomers worldwide accept cosmic inflation as part of the standard modern theory of the universe.

What caused cosmic inflation? The best theory so far is based on mathema- tical extrapolation but zero data. It describes a strange state of being that is still continuing outside our universe, called “eternal inflation.” So where’s the beginning? Before eternity? What do those two words together even mean? If we require that God can only be God by having created this universe, then we don’t understand what we’re crediting God with creating.

God can’t know everything. In our universe no consciousness can know everything, because there is no possible unified view. This is an implication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which is supported by immense evidence. For example, events don’t happen in the same order for two travelers moving very rapidly with respect to each other. It’s not their perception: things really do hap- pen in different orders in their frames of reference. There is no absolute truth that God could even know. Truth is local.

Furthermore, the speed of light limits how fast any information can travel, and the age of the universe limits the amount of time there has been. Consequently, from the viewpoint of any particular place, most of the universe is permanently out of contact because there hasn’t been time enough for information to travel from there to here, and the expansion is accelerating, pushing even more of the universe out of reach. So no intelligence could ever know what was going on or had gone on “everywhere.” Nor could God “be everywhere” (and thus know all local knowledge) or God wouldn’t even be in touch with its own self.

God can’t intend everything that happens. At the level of elementary particles nature is random, according to quantum physics, and the behavior of any single particle can never be predicted. Probabilities are all that can be predicted. For example, physicists can predict the number of atoms in a gram of radium that will radioactively decay in the next minute, but not which atoms. On the larger size scale of biology, evolution is also unpredictable in principle because it de- pends on random mutations interacting with a changing environment. Conse- quently, a creator God could not have “used” the process of evolution to create us, because if such a God had any intention before starting—for example, to create a creature like us—that would never be what ended up evolving. For the same reasons God couldn’t intend us, God can’t intend what happens to us. God can’t violate the laws of nature. Nothing that exists in the real universe can violate the laws of nature, since what exists is an expression of those laws. The belief that God can violate the laws of nature is based on the assumption that the spiritual realm is somehow separate and independent from the physical universe, so God is unconstrained by physics. Yet this nonphysical spiritual God can reach across, the belief goes, in some inexplicable way to affect even- ts in the physical realm. This idea may have made sense in an era when no one understood the meaning of “universe,” but that time is past. A God that resides outside our universe cannot have any contact with us. It can’t be our God. Have we ruled out God? Not at all. We’ve merely stated what God can’t be. We ha- ven’t considered yet what God could be.

My view is that God is an emergent phenomenon that has arisen, and con- tinues to arise, from the staggeringly complex interactions of all humanity’s aspirations since our distant ancestors acquired the ability to aspire. This is a radical idea, and most of A God That Could Be Real explores the implications of this viewpoint, because it affects everything.

We’ve all grown up so steeped in one tradition or another, whether we’ve ac- cepted it or rebelled against it, that it’s hard to grasp that the chance to re-defi-

ne God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will, I believe, play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.

Luigi - How is academic world, so often rigid in position, reacting to the possi- bility of an intelligence design to the cosmos. What has been your experience of it ? How has the message been perceived?

Nancy - I have never claimed that there is an intelligence in the design of the cosmos, because the cosmos was not designed by anything or anyone. It evol- ved. Design is something created by intelligent minds. It’s in the universe as we understand the universe, but if no one understood the universe, there would be no design to it. One of the hallmarks of intelligence is the creative ability to see patterns in the world around you, whether you’re a child looking at clouds, an artist looking at found objects, or a detective looking for clues. This ability evolved in us.

No one designed the universe, and no one designed the amazing place of hu- mans in the universe, which has recently been discovered. Perhaps shockingly for those who thought that science had long ago eliminated any notion that we’re the “center of the universe,” it turns out intelligent begins actually are central. We’re not literally in the middle (there is no middle to an expanding universe) – but in fundamental ways we’re central to the principles of astronomy and physics that underlie the new picture. To understand this better, read The View from the Center of the Universe, but here are some of the ways.

1) We are made of the rarest stuff in the universe: stardust.

2) We are at the center of the visible universe. Every galaxy is at the center of its visible universe. The finite speed of light makes this inevitable.

3) We are living at the peak moment in the entire existence of the universe for astronomical observation. It took billions of years for a consciousness like ours to evolve and build telescopes. (Aliens may have done it sooner, but not much sooner, because they had to evolve too.) But the most distant, faint galaxies – which we have just acquired the technological ability to see – are disappearing over the cosmic horizon, because the once-slowing expansion of the universe has begun instead to accelerate. At the cosmic horizon expansion has acce- lerated beyond the speed of light, since expanding space is not bound by any speed limit. Light can’t cross space that is expanding faster than the speed of light, so that’s why there is a horizon. Over the coming billions of years, intelli- gent creatures in any galaxy will see the visible universe empty out. The gala- xies, or the clusters of galaxies that are already bound by gravity, will become islands in the cosmic darkness. The universe as we are observing it today will truly become mythic, since it will be the lost Golden Age – a fabulous sky rich with galaxies, which, our very distant descendants will know, actually existed but will never be seen again.

4) Our bodies exist at the midpoint of all possible sizes. On a logarithmic scale (the only meaningful scale for the universe-as-a-whole) we are midway in size between the visible universe and the smallest size physics allows, the Planck length. Perhaps more visually, we are midway in size between our solar system and the nucleus of an atom.

5) The entire universe created by the Big Bang – not just our visible part of it – may be a rare bubble of expanding spacetime in the infinitely inflating eter- nal superuniverse. Outside our absolutely unique and isolated bubble there is neither space nor time as we know it. But here inside there is time for evolution and history, and there is space across which connections can form and structu- res can develop.

6) We are living at the midpoint of the life of our planet. Earth formed, along with the sun and other planets, about four and a half billion years ago and has five or six billion more to go before it is roasted by our own sun when the sun swells into a red giant star.

7) We are living at a cosmically pivotal moment in the evolution of the human species, on which everything could depend. Today is late enough to have ac- quired wonderful abilities and a high consciousness while early enough to still have a multi-billion year potential future. We could be the beginning of intelli- gence in the galaxy, which could be snuffed out if in the next couple of decades we let people destroy the planetary conditions our kind of life needs to survive. From the point of view of those of us alive at this moment, it is late enough that we are sobering up to the scale of our problems, but not so late that we have lost all chance to solve them. This is a pivotal moment that will never come again.

When my coauthor Joel Primack and I proposed this way of seeing ourselves in the universe, we received excellent feedback. Many colleges are using the books to teach astronomy, but as to the meaning of this new picture, which meant so much to us, we heard mostly from nonscientists. This may be becau- se nonscientists are not afraid to look for meaning that goes beyond science. Many scientists are equally interested in finding meaning, but they don’t speak publicly about it. This may be because they fear criticism, or worse, mockery, from their colleagues if they go beyond the strictly scientific aspects of their research, either to draw connections with relevant fields in which they are not experts, or to warn of larger social dangers and take activist stands. In this era, when global climate change threatens everything we know and care about, everyone needs an accurate picture of reality. It is crucial that scientists with relevant expertise not wait until they have 99% certainty before sounding an alarm. By the time they have that, it will be too late. Pivotal moments do not last long. Entropy laughs, and suddenly it’s too late. Scientists need to have the courage to see themselves first as human beings, with a survival instinct above all else. The evidence is already strong; they must stand up for protecting the cosmologically long term future.

Luigi - Difficulties and looming threats have always been present. In this re- spect, historical periods are more or less similar to one another. But people seem to perceive the challenges of their own period to be more challenging than those of previous periods. However, despite difficulties, the youths of every generation seem to look forward with hope. Looking back, could you tell us in which way your generation saw the future? Are there any similarities with that of our generation today?

Nancy - I worked in the science advisory office of the uS Congress soon after law school. It was 1976-77. My office was trying to predict what kind of scientific research the uS would need over the next 30 years and write appropriate le- gislation. Thirty years is an important number, because this has been the dou- bling time for many industrial impacts on the larger world. Since about 1800, for example, the amount of carbon that humans have dumped into the atmosphere has doubled every 30 years, which is exponential growth. I worked in Washin- gton not only before the internet but before the personal computer, yet in my office we all knew the climate was changing, that oil was peaking, that we were in a period of mass extinctions, and that human activities were the reason why.

We understood then many things that people still don’t understand today. But at that time 30 years seemed like a luxuriously long time horizon, and few of the members of Congress we worked for took us seriously. In fact it was far too short a horizon. But now more than 30 years have passed, and all those problems have DOuBLED in intensity and consequences. Earth may not bear another doubling.

With the new cosmology we have the conceptual tools to look not just 30 years ahead but into the cosmological future. We can see that doublings can go on forever in mathematics but not in the physical world. There is always a cra- sh – unless some wise consciousness intervenes and sets things on a saner path. The biggest difference between your generation and mine is that you have immensely more knowledge – not only scientific but historical. If you take advantage of it and use it to unify your generation while you are still young, you can become that intervening, guiding consciousness.

Your generation is much more powerful than you think, especially because you now control the digital world. Traditional divisions among people are not laws of physics. They are not sacred. They are, in many cases, the result of historical accidents. They are trivial compared to what is at stake for your generation, and what you can accomplish if you realize this and start discussing it and circula- ting new ideas via social networks. Your true allies are the other people your age around the world. Don’t divide according to your parents’ and teachers’ and religious leaders’ animosities and inherited prejudices, because you will be the ones sharing the fate of this planet over the next 70 or 80 years, not them. The earlier that young people figure out how to identify horizontally with young people around the world rather than vertically with their families’ political or ethnic groups, the better the world will turn out – for all generations to come.

Luigi - You and your husband are a couple in life, as well as professionally. Together, you research, teach and write books. What are the benefits of such collaboration?

Nancy - My husband and I work together in a way that is incredibly rare and precious. We started writing articles together about science and politics before we were married and before he became a cosmologist. We are both strong personalities, and we have had our clashes, but we have enormous respect for each other and find the other one continually entertaining.

Luigi - Considering the time in which we are living, do you think women should play a larger role in modern science or, more generally, in society?

Nancy - I think women should run everything. Men have had their turn and not done half as well as we would have. But for the very reasons that men should hand it over, they won’t. So we will have to get along.

But let me say this to young women: I hope you’ve been told all your life that you can do whatever work you want, because that’s true. But you also need to know that women control the future of our species through mate choice. The fact that so many women today are attracted to sexy superficial “bad boys” is a tragedy of mis-education. Choose a man who has the traits you want your children to possess in the dangerous and uncertain future they will live in: resilience, cre- ativity, honor, reliability, warmth, intelligence, and god knows, a sense of humor.

Most of the scientific universe is spiritual! We should be shouting this from the rooftops!
Nancy Ellen Abrams
Most of the scientific universe is spiritual! We should be shouting this from the rooftops!
Nancy Ellen Abrams
Talking to God is not a theoretical exercise for people like me; it can have serious real-world consequences.
Nancy Ellen Abrams
Talking to God is not a theoretical exercise for people like me; it can have serious real-world consequences.
Nancy Ellen Abrams