The scale of the Universe versus the complexity of life

I have often found myself contemplating which is more amazing, the sheer scale of the Universe or the complexity of life? It isn’t easy to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to very briefly explain my thinking on this.

Despite my field being biology, and despite finding nothing more amazing on Earth than the evolution and subsequent complexity of life, I have to fall on the side of the size of the Universe. I think I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I’ve given it some thought. Here is why I think what I do.

It isn’t possible for an individual to know everything about a single field. I’ve had incredible biology professors who have told me that they are lucky to understand 1/3 of what they read in scientific journal articles concerning biology. This is because in order to become an expert on anything, it requires one to focus on a relatively small subset of facts within a field. Just look at how biology breaks down: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, physiology, embryology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and so on. This sort of division is going to be true of just about any field. (I can’t think of any exceptions.) How can we expect anyone to understand it all? We simply cannot. But that isn’t to say we can’t understand it all as a species. In principle, we can understand everything that has to do with biology. We can break it down and analyze each bit, no matter how esoteric and specific. That doesn’t mean we necessarily ever will, but there is nothing preventing us from doing so. We have the ability, when we pool all our resources and minds, to understand everything there is to understand about life and its evolution.

I don’t think we can say that same thing about the sheer scale of the Universe. For the sake of argument, I will limit myself to the observable Universe. But right there. Look at what I just did. Without fear of losing any ground in my argument, I limited my scope. Yet my whole point is scope. That’s just how huge the Universe is. And how can anyone truly appreciate that? No human is going to travel any distance from Earth that is notable on the scale of the Universe. Even our space probes that are now on their way to interstellar space have done so little; being impressed by that distance would be like being impressed that an atom moved a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of its radius to the right. I would say to now imagine that analogy increased trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon…of times, but of course you can’t. No one can. We don’t have any way, in our small lives, to really comprehend something like that. The Universe is enormous. Just enormous.

We can pool our minds together as a species and come to a great understanding of all that surrounds us. All our physicists and astronomers and cosmologists can give us a tremendous understanding, via science, of how it all works. They can even describe, with numbers on paper, how large the observable Universe is. They can show us incredible pictures of thousands of galaxies (in just a small sliver of the sky), each with billions of stars and billions of planets. And it really all is wonderful. But no matter how many brilliant minds we put to the task, we can never appreciate the sheer scale of what is. It is, in every meaning of the word, beyond us.

Darwin and Lyell

On Charles Lyell, that most eminent of 19th century scientists…

I never forget that almost everything which I have done in science I owe to the study of his great works. Well, he has had a grand and happy career, and no one ever worked with a truer zeal in a noble cause.

~Charles Darwin

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