In the beginning was chaos. Things were very hot and very dense.
Then matter cooled. Familiar particles began to form. Photons were released and there was light.
Matter cooled some more, expanded, and condensed into swirling galaxies. Clouds of gas collapsed into stars. Within the stars, hydrogen atoms fused into helium, releasing energy, and – again – there was light.
Stars burned and died. In their lives and deaths, they fused more and more complex elements. The waves of energy released by the dying stars triggered the formation of more stars. Around the young star, clouds of leftover debris orbited. Pieces of debris collided, broke apart, and joined together into planets.
Around one ordinary star, the Earth formed. Young Earth was a tumultuous place, its surface bombarded by meteorites and its atmosphere filled with gases emitted by volcanoes. But, eventually, the solar system became calmer. On Earth, it rained. The oceans filled. And in the oceans, complex molecules joined together, learned how to replicate themselves, and there was life.
Life filled the Earth, from deep in the ocean to high on land, from below the crust to up into the atmosphere. Life kept evolving, from simple single-celled organisms to more complex multi-celled species. Life discovered how to create usable energy from sunlight, bringing oxygen into the atmosphere. Whatever the challenge (shifting continents, changing climates, even mass extinctions), life continued to evolve, as each species adapted itself better and better to its ever-changing environment, constantly competing with others for the right to survive and reproduce.
One species that evolved on this planet was Homo sapiens – a group of clever, tool-using primates who invented all sorts of odd things, from poetry to ploughs, televisions to tents. These humans gazed up into the star-filled sky and at the the life-filled land around them, and they wondered… perhaps more than any other species, they wondered…. what did it all mean? Where did they fit in?
A cosmology is a story about the origins and structure of the universe. As long as have been on this planet, we have told stories of how the universe came to be and what is our place in it. Most of these stories have been myths – stories that may not have been scientifically accurate, but that embodied some deeper truths about humans and how we saw ourselves in relationship with the rest of the more-than-human world.
The story that we are telling now – and which I just told a very short form of – is different, because this cosmology is one that we have discovered through science. It is a story that we are still learning, and includes all disciplines of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, anthropology, art, psychology, and philosophy. It is a story that, while it may be based in scientific theory, can – just like the stories of old – reveal deeper truths about our relationship with the rest of the more-than-human world, truths that we especially need to know at this time in our development.
Cosmology teaches us that we, humans, are a creation of the universe. And not only that, but we are constantly being created by the world around us. The atoms in our bodies were created in the heart of a star, and have passed through the bodies of countless other animals, plants, and bacteria. We carry the DNA of untold generations in our genes. Our water and air is made suitable for us to drink and breathe by the planet’s natural processes. We are intimately connected with all that is around us.
Cosmology teaches us that, just as we – people, trees, mountains, planets, stars, galaxies – were one whole when the universe began, so – no matter how far-flung the universe has become today – we are still part of one whole today. Recognizing this can help us to realize that our actions can have consequences on the wider world, and that by changing our life, we can change the world. Recognizing this can help us to feel that we belong, and that we are never truly alone.
Part of the problem is that when we teach this story, we teach it only in school, and it becomes simply another set of dry facts to memorize, not a story to understand. But deep understanding of this story is just what we need. So I encourage you, if you not familiar with it, to spend some time with this story, learn its details, and then walk out alone under the sky and feel its truth in your own soul. And then tell it to others.