Our entire Milky Way galaxy wobbles like a speck of dust on the outskirts of a cluster of 200,000 galaxies, all sailing into the dense heart of an extraordinary wondrous supercluster consisting of even more millions and millions of galaxies.
Because of the untold billions of planets attached to this glittering mass of colliding galaxies, Stephen Hawking, the premier cosmologist of our own little time and place, has concluded that of course there is life, not to mention intelligent life, throughout the universe and further suggests it would be unwise to make any contact with it. He is afraid that in all this bright infinitude there will be predators who might take advantage if they ever discover our defenseless, relatively new blue world so modest and marginal, possessing only one sun, a few telescopes, a small solar system in which to play, no near-by black holes and only a clumsy primitive understanding of robotics, artificial intelligence, and weaponry.
Once discovered, we who inhabit the place might be slaughtered or taken as slaves or food, our valuables, our still beautiful planet ransacked. Many of his colleagues are amused by these fears. Even at the speed of light, to glide through the vast distances in time between stars in the same galaxy, much less between stars in colliding ones, seems beyond the universal laws of physics as we know them. The majority of contemporary astronomers doubt we will ever be found.
Still, Hawking’s fears strike a chord. We are familiar with predatory instincts because we still endure the great non-human predators born in our own world. Brown bears in Alaska attack joggers in their back yards; a local woman working in fields on the border of Nepal fights off an attacking leopard with her spade and sickle, smashing its teeth in the process.
Six foot alligators occasionally lunge into your kayak on the Hillsborough River. Twenty people have been killed by great white sharks in the past few years off the coast of Australia and New South Wales.
Of course the predator-prey dynamic on earth is everywhere. But there are few creatures left on the planet who can strike real visceral fear into the hearts of our own species, because we have invented ways to defend ourselves against almost anything we have found here.
Human predators are often more frightening than animal predators, though we are often entertained by their asocial exploits. Any show on television showing the hatred, nihilism and savagery of murderers, drug dealers, rapists, and all varieties of sociopaths has a good chance of winning an Emmy.
Science fiction continues the predator narrative. District Nine imagines giant insect aliens hovering over a Soweto slum; a highly aggressive extraterrestrial Alien becomes famous for stalking countless crews of spaceships; The Borg, Star Trek’s race of multiple species captured and turned into one cybernetic organism, function as drones in a collective hive. Then there is L.Ron Hubbard. Though most astronomers and astrobiologists roll their eyes in disdain at these hyperbolic stories, they plunge us into the supposed terror of cosmic existence perhaps even more than a grizzly attack or a shark bite or an ISIS soldier.
Despite earthly predators and possible enemies light years away, seven billion people continue to go about their business trying to thrive or make do or hide out according to their way, always continuing the modern human line which has survived various troubles and solved a great many problems for hundreds of thousands of years. There is of course much we don’t know. We still don’t know, for example, how to rid various assorted human cultures of hatred and denigration of women which means that more than half the human race is always enslaved.
Still, we are making spectacular progress on several fronts. The most confident among us are the explorers, scientists, and billionaires whose heartless refrain that “we must get off this grim rock”, that “it’s time to leave the cradle”, is profoundly changing the course of the 21st century. There seems to be no end to their ambition: building a thriving colony on Mars; mining near-by asteroids; exploring Europa, the frozen moon of Jupiter, to discover what lives in the ocean beneath the ice. One day with the help and intelligence of robots, they are planning to escape our solar system entirely.
I certainly understand the restless urge to get away. There’s a village called Cedar Key along the Gulf of Mexico that lies amid a scattering of islands and wildlife preserves and when Joanie and I want to take a short trip, we drive north on U.S.19 until we reach state road 24 which eventually brings us into the old village itself.
Nine hundred islanders live on Cedar Key, once the headquarters of the Eberhard Faber pencil company. The town’s cedar trees were eventually cut down to make wooden pencils until a serious hurricane decimated the factory. Cedar Key returned to being a sleepy fishing village with a few grocery stores and a restaurant that became known for Tom’s clam chowder. Today, islanders with sun bleached pony tails build boats in their front yards and families of migrating white pelicans land on old piers for a night or two. Hundreds of horseshoe crabs scrabble over rocks at low tide.
Surrounded by birds, water, and boats, Faraway Inn lies close to the water on the bay side of the island. When the tide is in and the fierce wind is blowing, spray splashes into the open windows of Cabin Number One and onto an old linoleum floor. Roaring waves drown out any other sound. The sky is black except for thousands of stars.
I realized long ago that I would always prefer seeing the distant universe from the open windows of this homely cabin rather than from the sleek console of a spaceship. But, though I am only qualified to live on earth, that beautiful iridescent sea creature who may or may not live under the ice of Europa haunts me to this day. Unlike Stephen Hawking, I see it not as a predator but as a powerful and lonely companion on our journey to the Starmaker.
I have left our own companions out: the wolf families, the tigers of the Sundarbans, the bald eagle, the great elephant matriarchs of Amboseli, the flamingo and Pacific salmon, California redwoods, white pines of Yellowstone, and hidden orchards of the Everglades. Even now, there is abundance and vast migrations and millions of exuberant lives flying through the air, swimming through the seas, racing across the plains. Our time on this planet has no meaning without these non-human lives.
No clever robot, no starship faster than the speed of light, no post biological world, no software, no data, will ever replace this meaning once 75% of our plants and animals and fish and birds become extinct. Our rare blue world is not yet “a grim rock”. Perhaps Stephen Hawking should only be afraid of those who think it is.
©2014 Linda Clarke Volume 13 Issue 3