The Cosmic Age

We live in troubling times, but when we look upward, it seems there's ample grace waiting in the heavens. The images of an orange rock-strewn plain that NASA's Spirit, the space probe currently roving on Mars, is sending back are mesmerizing. Meanwhile Stardust, another space probe, is on its way back to earth -- as if in a fairy tale -- with comet dust captured in its net. In a week, a second NASA rover will land on the opposite side of Mars to study rock sediments and signs of life. Adding to it all, another space probe, Cassini, will begin orbiting Titan, a planet-size moon on Saturn, later this year.

President Bush's announced plans this week to send manned missions to the moon and Mars -- with the cooperation of Japan and Europe -- and establish a permanent station on the moon. And China hopes to have a manned station orbiting the moon. While thinkers and writers still haven't come to terms with the full impacts of the forces of globalization, another age is already upon us. Call it cosmozation.

The word doesn't exist in the dictionary, but then, two decades ago, neither did globalization. Soon, Webster will have to add cosmozation, or something like it, in order to address man's intensifying relationship with the cosmos.

Roland Robertson, a social scientist, defines globalization as "The compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole." The world shrinks, geographical constraints are overcome, while identities become multilayered, complex. As a species, we may not always get along with each other, but these days, thanks to an integrated economy and unprecedented mass movement across the various borders, and modern technology -- satellites, cell phones, jet planes, the internet, and so on -- we are, like it or not, constantly aware of each other's existence. We are, in fact, interacting and influencing one another on an unprecedented scale and intensity, regardless of the distances.

Taking Robertson's definition a step further, it seems inevitable that the universe too, shrinks and compresses as we explore and measure it, and infer profound implications from our discoveries. Cosmozation is the process in which man's awareness expands beyond the globe: He grows cognizant that he exists on intimate levels with the rest of the universe, that he is interacting with it, and, increasingly, having an effect upon it.

For example, scientists are discussing the possibility of a large asteroid hitting earth and what to do about it. The last asteroid that collided with our planet 65 million years ago wiped out more than 90% of life here. One idea is that various countries could send up nuclear missiles in a concerted effort to deflect a big asteroid's trajectory, were it to come our way. What is astounding is not that another sizable asteroid might collide with earth, but that we think we can do something about it.

Unlike the dinosaurs, we have, in effect, become active agents in this process. The knowledge that humans can have an effect beyond our own planet informs NASA's decision in September to crash the spacecraft Galileo on Jupiter rather on Europa, one of Jupiter's 39 satellites. Europa has an ocean under its ice and active volcanoes to boot. It just might be supporting alien life. Jupiter, on the other hand, is very hot and gaseous and deemed incapable of life.

Crashing Galileo on Europa would have risked contaminating it with microbes from earth. That decision says something about our new perspective regarding our position in the universe. Until 600 years ago, we assumed our world was at the very center of the universe, that it was flat, and that it was orbited by the sun. Today, thanks to advances in technology including the Hubble telescope, which stares into the far edges of the universe, we've found evidence of hundreds of other solar systems, with planets orbiting a star, or in some cases, binary stars. We even spotted a planet with an atmosphere 150 million light years away. A few years ago, a meteorite from Mars known as the Allan Hills meteorite, astonished the world when scientists said they found tantalizing traces of fossilized life within it. Their findings have been contested, but the meteorite renewed enthusiasm for the idea of panspermia (Greek for "all-seeding") -- the interstellar exchange of DNA, a theory championed by Francis Crick, who discovered the DNA molecule with two other scientists half a century ago.

Besides, there is such a thing as self fulfilling prophecy: If Earth didn't receive DNA for a start up way back when, we are now actively sending out DNA through space with our space craft and satellites and shuttles. We know meteors constantly bombard Earth when we look up into the night sky and spot shooting stars.

But more astounding is what astronomer Lou Frank speculated about a decade ago and found new evidence for only recently. Using the Hubble Telescope to study Earth's atmosphere, Frank proved that Earth is constantly hit by snowballs from space. The implications are enormous: if snowballs from outer space hit Earth regularly, it is "snowing" onto other planets, too, providing much-needed water for the primordial soup. We are slowly discovering that ours is not just a lonely blue planet amid the heavens but, in fact, it exists as part of an open and intricately complex system. Distant planets and alien civilizations, if once the stuff of science fiction, are beginning to be seriously considered by scientists. Segio Fajardo-Acosta, a researcher at University of Denver readily confesses: "I personally believe that there are many civilization out there. The distances are staggering and communication is a problem, especially if that civilization is in another galaxy. But with imagination and a very sophisticated technology, I think we could probably overcome the distance limitation and communicate with others."

The sea on which we sail in our voyage of cosmozation is infinitely more vast and wondrous than that of Columbus. And if modern life has its pitfalls, and if cynicism often colors our worldviews, we can always look up to the starry night and be re-enchanted. The cosmic age has arrived.

Andrew Lam will be featured in a WETA documentary called 'My Journey Home' to be aired April 7, 2004 on PBS stations.

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