Rusty Niall
Rusty Niall Podcast
No, you are not an inconsequential blip within the vast fabric of the cosmos

No, you are not an inconsequential blip within the vast fabric of the cosmos

You have no doubt already seen the first high-res shots of the universe taken by the the James Webb Space Telescope. The universe is so incomprehensively vast that we can only conceive of this vastness by staring at recolourised images of it on our phones. Dying stars make fantastic desktop wallpaper.

Forgive me, I love images like this, I love the human endeavour that goes into them. But I am a little tired of a sentiment that often accompanies them. This sentiment was satirised decades ago when Eric Idle sang the Galaxy Song as part of a sketch that involved him convincing a housewife that it was okay to harvest her husband’s organs while he was still alive and unaneasthetised. This sentiment is: Look how small and inconsequential we really are!

I don’t even need to point to the James Webb telescope itself in order to convince you that our species is awesome. Firing an object into space so that it can pap the dying gasps of long dead galaxies is kind of a big deal but most of us can’t claim personal credit. However, even if we look at these images while scooping cheesy Wotsits from a massive bowl with the hand we just had down our pants, we are still doing something that stands as testament to the brilliance of our species.

We are special and consequential because we are able to perceive how small and inconsequential we are.

Show a James Webb image to a chimpanzee, a whale, a dog or a squirrel and all they will see is a flat plane with a few colourful speckles across its surface.

No species can comprehend the incomprehensible but ours can at least comprehend its incomprehensibility.

We cannot fit the cosmos within our minds but our imaginations can conjure and entertain images that can represent it. None of this is possible without the human imagination. While I doubt that ours is the only form of imagining in the universe, we see no trace of other imaginations as we look out as far as we can.

This “Look at how inconsequential we are” schtick just strikes me as a typical bout of intellectual wanger-waving. Smart guys posing as tough guys. We get it. You’re not scared of death and you don’t think you’re special and you really want us to know this.

I used to say stuff like this too until I noticed myself getting wound up about cheating during the my childrens’ last sports day. I was at peace with our place in the cosmos before I saw a ten-year-old hold an egg against a spoon with his thumb and then I couldn’t hold it down any longer. I was absolutely fine with all the war, disease and suffering on our own planet and the constant death of innumerable solar systems before I caught a whiff of Key Stage Two sculduggery.  A telescope image might inspire us to wax lyrical about how inconsequential our place in the cosmos is but we’re right back within the cogs of samsara as soon as we look up from that image to see a chair has just become free on our packed rush hour carriage.

For all my cognitive shortcomings I am able to conceive of a huge, indifferent universe by staring at a configuration of different coloured pixels on my phone screen. That makes me amazing. It makes you amazing too. If I saw evidence of another species that could do half as much as we could I would be absolutely astonished while staring at my phone and ignoring all the amazing humans around me. We might be screwing it all up in spectacular fashion, but we’re still amazing.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before but, after I performed a poem about the human brain to a sciencey audience, a world renowned astrophysicist whose name I’ve forgotten told me that the universe is simple. We know how it began and we know how it’s going to end, but the human mind still leaves his own mind perplexed. Where do you need to look for the most mindblowing event in the known universe? Just look at the act of looking itself.

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been as busy as you have been, working on stuff that I might or might not get round to sharing. Thanks for using some of that precious time to read this.


Rusty Niall
Rusty Niall Podcast
A monthly podcast where I read out and chat about my personal highlights and talk about other stuff too.