Big Bang, Cassini, Dark Ages, Darwin, Depression of 1929, Edison, Einstein, Faraday, Galileo, Homo Sapiens, Newton, Pasteur, Radical Islamist Terrorism, Russell, Saturn, Space-Probes, Voltaire, World Wars
Some would disagree. People my age (80) have lived through two World Wars and others too numerous to list. We missed the Depression of 1929, but were hit by the more recent crashes on Wall Street that practically ruined some of us. We have seen the birth of Radical Islamist terrorism and live in permanent fear or fatalism. We survived the Cuban crisis, and after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 hoped that relative peace, meaning the absence of World War, would become permanent – until recent threats of nuclear war which North Korea, Russia and the United States are seriously envisaging.
But in spite of all this, when we view the Big Picture, the history of the Universe and especially the history of Homo Sapiens, we realize just how lucky we are. 13.8 billion years are beyond our imagination, and we register the date of the Big Bang with an indifference born of our incomprehension of such an immense period of time. 70,000 years – the age of Homo sapiens sapiens – is more within our mental grasp, though the paltry 2000 years of our Christian era are already difficult enough for us to take in. 500 years : this we can comprehend. The parish church here in L’Isle-Adam where I live is over 500 years old. Australia was colonized by Europeans 200 years ago, at the time of the French Revolution. Columbus discovered America in 1492. Galileo saw Saturn for the first time in 1610, Christian Huygens in 1659 discovered the exquisite rings surrounding the gaseous planet, the second largest in the Solar System. In 1675, Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered the dark region between Saturn’s two principal rings. And just twenty years ago we launched a space-probe to explore the planet and its famous rings. After a 1.2 billion kilometer, seven year journey, the probe – fittingly baptized “Cassini” – has, for the last thirteen years, been exploring the enormous, enigmatic planet. It is destined to complete its mission and explode on September 15 this year, 2017 !
I have recalled the detail because Cassini, rather than Georgia, is very much on our minds right now. But as we admire the fantastic photos it has given us (never seen by my parents), we can measure how far we have come – and how far we have gone ! – in just half a millennium. 500 years ago man entered the Scientific Age. In that very short period of time new discoveries were made that have transformed definitively the life of Homo Sapiens. You are reading this perhaps with the help of electric light, in a comfortable, fully equipped house, if not a skyscraper appartment, heated or cooled to provide comfort unknown to even our recent ancestors. Relax ! When you finish reading this, you can put a couple of rocks from the fridge into your favorite drink and catch up on the news on TV – including perhaps an update on Cassini’s latest discoveries.
Travel on land and sea, in the air and even in space, medicine, armaments, agriculture, engineering and information technology are just some of the domains in which we take for granted the progress humankind has made. The differences in our life-style since the time of Galileo and Cassini are spectacular, but so are the differences in the way we live now, compared or rather contrasted with the life of our parents. My Dad never had even a land-line, drove a car in his life or traveled more than one thousand kilometers from home. We are the Lucky Generation.
I could say the obvious about the apocalyptic dangers we face today, about the ongoing scandalous inequality between the haves and the have-nots, about the poverty and misery of millions who have never profited from “progress”. I prefer to limit myself to a word on the gap between the giant leap we have made in our knowledge and mastery of the world in which we live, and the stagnation of our progress out of the Dark Ages of religious belief and superstition.
The contrast is remarkable between life-styles (and life-expectancy !) five centuries ago and today. One could have expected that we would have also progressed beyond the myths of the 17th century and the religious belief and practice still current today. The 18th century’s “Enlightenment” did much to expose the incredibility of the religions which dominated life up till then. But in our own 21st century, billions of people still share the same credulity and live in the same Dark Ages, as they drive in heated/cooled cars to heated/cooled churches to worship the same “God” as our ancestors, who drove in horse and dray to the cool if not freezing churches and cathedrals of yore.
We are indeed lucky to have been born after Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Pasteur, Edison and Einstein, and to have profited from their contribution to science and to the standard of living with its “modern conveniences” we enjoy. I feel even luckier to have been born after Voltaire, Darwin and Russell, without whom I may never have become an atheist nor author of this Blog.