Rattling through the Peak District, this is what I saw and thought. WARNING: I try to write one of these a day, this leaves to shoddy grammar, spelling and meaning
When I wasn’t reading my book, tutting at a newspaper or telling Josie off for swearing, I spent much of today’s train journeys staring out of the window. Between Chesterfield and Alfreton, I had one of those moments where I thought, “stuff grows here”. It wasn’t a revelation nor a remarkable insight to anyone reading this, but looking at the severed stalks of crops in a midland field and to the clouds above, I had a small jolt of delight. I don’t think I am worshipper of nature, neither robes or nudity suit me, but sometimes it takes me by surprise and the variety of life before me slaps a look of satisfaction on my face.
It’s useful to be reminded that, from our minor expeditions by telescope, rocket and rover so far, life looks like it might be rare or at least spread out over such distances that we are not going to be chatting to an ET soon. Much like childhood considerations of infinity, I can become dizzy thinking of all the intelligent life that might exist across the universe, each one never knowing that others exist. Even if we are not alone in the universe, the distances may be so great that we might as well be; a Robinson Crusoe species forever waiting for the footprint of a Friday.
These thoughts are one of the many reasons that I am glad I started reading science again, it improves the view out of your window. This is why I see no sense in Oprah Winfrey’s argument that atheism impoverish your world or universe view. I can’t imagine that the addition of a manufacturer, and one who doesn’t offer warranty in most products, would make my happiness of looking at the Peak district greater. Just as my mind is limited and I can’t understand why gods are required to complete the picture, so some of the faithful find their imagination stalling when it comes to me finding joy from the mutation, heredity, natural selection, glaciers, rivers and rockfalls being enough to create a moment of bliss; a sight worth delighting in even if it is just the sort of thing that happens by chance.
Whether you want God, gods, Pan, Lucifer, nymphs or nature to be in the picture, it seems the most important thing is to consider its rarity. There seem to be reasons that life inhabits this planet, water, proximity to the sun, and does not seem to inhabit others. It is worth pausing every now and again just to think, “bloody hell, there is a lot of life here”. My hotel window looks out over a Nottingham church. I can see three different types of tree, each with differently shaped leaves that offer some advantage in their shape to survival, some more autumnal than others, a few roses still have their flowers, and the tombs are hefty with moss. Beneath the damp grass, I will presume there are worms turning and digesting the soil, plus a host of grubs and microbes I know nothing of, getting along with their lives unaware of me and unaware of their own existence or its importance. Three men are currently looking at the church’s porch, I think out of interest in the architecture and gargoyles above, rather than for the purposes of font thieving. In each stained glass window opposite me there are clues to the imagination of chaplains and artists, if you stare long enough at the masonry, you can start to hear chisels.
When I look at my son’s Tree of Life poster, I am repeatedly astounded to think that if we go back far enough in time, we find a common ancestor for the trees, roses, masons, vicars, worms, moss and you and I. How odd to think of the DNA we share though not enough to enhance any attempt at conversation at lichen or the need to invite a willow to your daughter’s wedding – “bride or groom?” – “Both”
It is our inability to comprehend the rarity, despite a growing library of images of systems and worlds beyond us, and a developing body of knowledge on what humans believe life requires to exist, that puts us in jeopardy. Oh well, the Universe won’t care, because it can’t. Now where did I leave my emergency escape wormhole?
FOOTNOTE: my favourite sight from the window was a group of lazy cows, I say lazy, what do I expect them to do, hooves are no good for Sudoku or knitting, lying in a field by a crumbling brick barn. I thought of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, then I remembered some of DH Lawrence’s unsavory opinions, so I just thought of cows and bricks again.
My Darwin/Feynman/Batfish show is coming to Cranleigh, Braintree, Edinburgh, Dorking and many more, plus I am bringing Grace Petrie and Josie Long to Finchley. Details HERE (plus details on spectacular Christmas shows)
My DVD – Happiness Through Science, including Brian Cox commentary, is available HERE