Brian Thomas Swimme is professor of evolutionary cosmology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the co-creator and host of the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary universe traveland the co-founder of the Center for the Story of the Universe, which produces content that strives to bring humanity together into a vibrant global community.
Below, Brian shares 5 key insights from his new book, Cosmogenesis: an unveiling of the expanding universe. Listen to the audio version – read by Brian himself – in the Next Big Idea app.
1. We are cosmological beings.
The most radical discovery in four hundred years of modern science is our realization that the universe has made us. Every carbon atom in our body was built inside a star. The fusion reaction at the core of a star is the only process in the universe that can produce carbon or oxygen or any of the other elements that make us up.
The universe not only constructs the question of our body, but it also provides the energy of our lives. Here is the sequence: If we twist our fingers, the ergs (units of work) of energy allowing this action come from the food that we have eaten. The food received his the energy of the Sun. The Sun has received his the energy of the gravitational collapse of the galactic cloud that gave birth to it. This cloud received his the gravitational potential energy of the conflagration of the universe fourteen billion years ago. Every time we move a finger, we are tapping into the energy that erupted at the beginning of time.
At the secondary level, we are American or Chinese, mothers or fathers. But at the most basic level, each of us is an elegant construct of the universe. This is what we have in common. We are everything cosmological beings.
2. Relationship determines everything.
When two entities come into relationship, they are changed in their fundamental nature – they are different and they are new.
An example from physics shows this clearly. The neutron (an elementary particle), left alone, disintegrates after a few minutes. But if that same neutron comes into contact with a proton, it can exist for billions of years. A neutron in relation to a proton is fundamentally different from a neutron alone.
“Nothing came to Earth from outside.”
Let’s take an example of the entire cosmos. At the beginning of time, the universe was a plasma composed of elementary particles. For a billion years, these particles interacted with each other and produced billions of stars and galaxies. By exploring the relationships, the primordial soup at the origin of time was transformed into gigantic structures of the universe on a large scale.
A particularly dramatic demonstration of the power of relationship comes from the story of life. For many eternities, life on our planet consisted uniquely single-celled organisms, each smaller than the pointed end of a pin. After three billion years, they entered into relationships with each other, relationships that spawned whales, dinosaurs and oak trees. What you have to understand is that nothing more than these single-celled organisms were involved. Nothing came to Earth from outside. Relationships have transformed tiny cells into large animal bodies with complex animals the spirits. The power of relationship has accomplished all of this.
3. The universe is intelligent.
Before the discovery of cosmological creativity, it was possible to think that the universe was composed of inert matter. But now that we know that matter has built living cells and animals with brains, does it make sense to think that matter is inert?
Matter in the universe has a form of intelligence that can do amazing things. Stars know how to create carbon and phosphorus. Ancient bacteria knew how to create photosynthesis. The universe as a whole has the same kind of intelligence, as can be seen in its expansion. Edwin Hubble discovered at the beginning of the 20th century that all galaxies are moving away from each other. When mathematical cosmologist Stephen Hawking examined this, he proved that the expansion was exactly what it needed to be for living planets to emerge. If the rate of expansion had been changed by even a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent, the universe would never have produced life. That is, the universe is expanding at the rate it is expanding because the universe “knows” how to produce life.
“If the rate of expansion had been changed by even a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent, the universe would never have produced life.”
Physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton summed up these findings in a single sentence: The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe must have somehow known we were coming.
4. Humanity has built its mind.
We can see this most clearly when we compare ourselves to our closest relative, the chimpanzee. We are 99% identical genetically. Five million years ago, humans and chimpanzees were indistinguishable. Our minds were chimpanzee minds. After five million years of evolution, humans and chimpanzees are again 99% identical, genetically, but humans have consciously participated in the development of new mentalities. These new mental powers enabled humans to spread across the surface of the Earth, to learn the processes of their own biology, to articulate the mathematical laws of the cosmos, to explore the bottom of the oceans, to build ten thousand cities , fly to the Moon, assemble libraries and transform the entire biosphere. While all of this was happening, the chimpanzees remained in equatorial Africa, using the same spirit we once shared.
Scientists have identified nine developments in human mentality that were made by mankind itself.
Take one of them, the development of reproductive imagination. Reproductive imagination is the ability to consciously recall an experience from the past. We take that for granted now, but it’s a mentality that needed to be conjured up inside the caves.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans traveled in caves that offered no biological benefit. They had no food or mating partner. Our ancestors went there for a strange experience. Imagine yourself inside one of these caves, you have a chimpanzee mind and sit in the dark, half a mile below the Earth’s surface. Torches flash when you watch one of your friends do something weird. With a burnt stick, he makes marks on the wall, winding lines or small dots.
“There is no physical horse, but there is is an imaginary horse.
After a while, something amazing happens. A horse suddenly appears, right there on the rock. There is no physical horse, but there is an imaginary horse. As you look around you see other people having this strange experience of reproducing something from an earlier time. In this way, humanity has added the reproductive imagination to its set of mental skills. One by one, new mental powers have appeared. This developmental process of evoking new powers of the mind continues today.
5. The new mentality evoked in our time is the ability to experience the universe turning in on itself.
One of the most significant events in human history is the detection of light since the beginning of time. The discovery of this light, called the microwave cosmic background radiation, was made in 1964 by two scientists working at Bell Labs in New Jersey. They were the first to realize that the light of origin arrived here after a flight of fourteen billion years. With contemporary telescopes, we can interact physically with this light. It’s here now. In the space of your cupped hands, there are seven thousand photons flashing after traveling here from the origin of the universe. We are learning to experience ourselves as the constructs of the explosion of light and matter that have evolved over billions of years and are now reflected in us. We are the primordial outpouring reflecting fourteen billion years of cosmological creativity.
The realization that in human consciousness the universe folds in on itself is the first step towards this new mentality. We can experience it directly in several ways. When we look at the stars, we only have to reflect on the fact that the stars built the atoms of our bodies. When we look at the stars, we see what built the eyes that look. Our mind is challenged by this figure-ground transformation: the interior looks at the exterior which gave birth to the interior. There is the heart of cosmogenesis, observing the processes that gave rise to both the carbon of our eyes and the thought of our minds. These phrases simply state what mathematical and observational cosmologists have discovered: when we look at the night sky, we are looking at what is looking.
To listen to the audio read by author Brian Thomas Swimme, download the Next Big Idea app today:
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