Adam Frank

Ah, I remember it like it was just last spring. The flurry of rumors, the initial shock, the charge of surprise, the sheer delight before a major scientific discovery. Yes, I remember it like it was last spring because — it was.

And now it's all dust.

Is Civilization Natural?

Sep 26, 2014

So, there's the city and then there's the country, the built environment and the wilderness, nature and civilization. Whatever name the dichotomy goes by, we usually think of the world humans create and the world outside their creations as separate and unequal.

"Where were you?" my beloved asked as I walked through the door caked in mud and sweat. "I was communing with my gods," I responded — and proceeded to tell her about the exquisite hike I'd had that morning in New York's Letchworth State Park (the Grand Canyon of the East).

Jon Morse, former astrophysics division director at NASA, can remember the exact moment he knew things had to change.

The path from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light and from purposelessness to puppies goes something like this:

  • Around 400 B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus and other "atomists" make the radical proposition that below all the worlds' appearances, all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible particles.

Why is next Tuesday different from Amsterdam's Central Station?

Next Tuesday is off in the future. It hasn't happened yet, and you can't say what it's going to look like. Maybe it will be like today. No big deal. But maybe you'll get hit by a falling meteor on Monday and be in the intensive care ward. Bummer. Amsterdam's Central Station, however, exists now. It's just over the Atlantic Ocean, and even as you read these words people are there, scurrying to get their trains or milling about buying weird Dutch fast food (try the greasy fried rice balls ... yum!).

Consider this, if you would: a network of far-flung, powerful, high-tech civilizations closely tied by trade and diplomatic embassies; an accelerating threat of climate change and its pressure on food production; a rising wave of displaced populations ready to sweep across and overwhelm developed nations.

Sound familiar?

C'mon, admit it. You've wondered. You've mused. You've pondered. At some point in your life — probably after watching a science-fiction movie — you've found yourself asking that all-important question: What happens if you find yourself in space without a spacesuit?

The news has been pretty depressing these last few weeks as the world seems to slip into a new kind of chaos every day. With conflicts on multiple continents, including a commercial airliner shot from the sky, it's hard to look at the ways we humans are horrible to each other and not ask: What the hell is wrong with us?

How can we inflict so much suffering on each other, always with the assertion that — on some level — it is necessary and, even, just? Is there something utterly flawed in the nature of our consciousness that repeatedly triggers such destruction?

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