Christmas Lecture I:
“Reframing Humanity – The Power of Optimism”
As part one of Exeposé Science’s “Christmas Lecture” series, Vincent Plant discusses the the power of optimism, and how to stay positive.
I would regard myself as a cautious optimist. I’m prone to speculate, to dream, to wonder. However I am liable, as I’m sure we all are, to look at the negatives in life. This is perhaps unsurprising; it is programmed into us. As an example, those who inferred a noise to be an approaching lion survived over those that didn’t and got unlucky. This led to a selection drive to look at the negative side of life. In the modern world, many of us are unhappy as a result of this. The world has changed around us, faster than evolution can catch up.
Science is starting to tell us that we can change this. We can potentially change the way we look at the world by something simple, almost mundane: gratitude. Just take the opportunity, a few times a week, to write down five things you’re grateful for. I’m going to apply this little exercise to the whole world; a way of reframing humanity, if you will.
People often say that our generation was born too late to explore the world, but too early to explore the Universe. However, we were born at exactly the right time to dream.
First, think about yourself for a minute. How improbable is it you exist at all? A woman will ovulate around 500 eggs in her lifetime, with a possible two million eggs in total ovaries at birth. A man will produce 1500 sperm a second, with 250 million released during fertilisation. If considering the 300,000 to 400,000 eggs a girl will have after her teens, the probability of the exact sperm-egg combination that led to you in that instant of fertilisation is in the trillions at the very lowest. The one combination that led to you amongst countless others won out. You are already incredibly lucky just to be you.
People often say that our generation was born too late to explore the world, but too early to explore the Universe. However, we were born at exactly the right time to dream. Humanity is full of potential and the hope of things to come. Even the outcry over climate change shows this; although the threat is serious, we are still at the stage where we can change it. We are able to decide our own course, rather than helplessly waiting for events to unfold. This is a very powerful thing indeed. Whether or not we will choose the right option is another matter, but we still have the choice.
Zooming out even further, look at our own evolution. A lot of factors had to align just right for us to evolve. Jupiter protects us from asteroid strikes which could wipe out life as we know it. Equally, when Jupiter and Saturn were rampaging around the Solar System billions of years ago, they provided us with a double blessing; they did not cause the rocky planets to fall into the sun with their movements (as they might have killed other early planets), while also causing the Great Bombardment as asteroids and comets were scattered, adding life-bearing water to Earth’s surface. There are potentially dozens of other horrendously unlikely examples like this, all aligning to result in life as we know it.
Our sun will live for about ten billion years. This was long enough for intelligent life to develop. Had she been any smaller, she might have been more of a cruel neighbour. In April 2018, Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf with a mass about 12% of the mass of our sun, released a solar flare powerful enough that it would have wiped out any life as we know it on its orbiting planet.
Alone in the dead wastes of space, with billions of galaxies each possibly with trillions of planets, we are the only known planet with life. That, in itself, should be the most powerful blessing our society has.
We appear to be the one rock in space with life, a single island in an endless ocean. Alone in the dead wastes of space, with billions of galaxies each possibly with trillions of planets, we are the only known planet with life. That, in itself, should be the most powerful blessing our society has. Our existence itself is enough of one.
Finally, a brief look at our future. If we do manage to make the right decision, or at least make it through the difficult teething phase of our society in the form of climate change, the possibilities seem endless. The science channel Kurzgesagt estimates that humanity could move outwards across the whole galaxy in only two million years; a blink of an eye in cosmic timescales (and that’s even without any fictional technologies such as faster than light travel.)
To summarise: remember that you are alive, despite the horrific odds against it. You are an elegant and complex organism within a deeply complex and beautiful living planet, the one speck of life in a vast Universe. If that’s not cause for some sense of wonder, I don’t know what would be.