“The Cosmic Perspective” Reaction

Sam Mortenson, Author

Sophomore Samantha Mortenson attended Neil deGrasse Tyson’s lecture, “The Cosmic Perspective”, at the State Theater in Minneapolis on March 23rd.

In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s lecture, “The Cosmic Perspective”, many different topics were covered–from numbers and the universe to humanity’s hubris. Each idea, however unrelated, was expertly woven together. The transition from looking at orders of magnitude to the entire universe, for example, may have been a bit jarring coming from an unskilled lecturer. However, Neil deGrasse Tyson expertly showed how small we all were through the use of these seemingly unrelated topics.

First, general orders of magnitude were introduced. The numbers started off relatively small, but quickly grew in size. The number one, for example, was not threatening, but one sextillion? One sextillion was mind-bending. He used comparisons along the way to help the audience comprehend these magnitude of each number. For example, the number of grains of sand on a beach was one quintillion— that’s ten to the eighteenth power! And yet somehow the number of stars in the sky is over a thousand times greater than that. Keep in mind too that this is just the observable universe; our universe may as well be one sextillion times greater than that, for all we know.

Some time later, Neil touched on the multiverse theory (cough, cough, it’s not a theory). He said that, although we have quite literally countless stars in our universe, it was plausible that there were more than one universe. The evidence he gave for this? The universe never makes just one of anything. It’s like the universe wanted to share its gifts with a few friends. A single galaxy is teeming with stars, and there is a glut of galaxies in a cluster, and even more in a filament. It stands to reason, he said, that there is more than one universe in existence as well. There very well could be a multiverse, and perhaps even multiple multiverses. In jest, he called this the metaverse and said there were probably multiple metaverses as well.

Of course, with the possibility of a multiverse, he presented another very real speculation. If humans can create video games, and if they can create them well enough that they mimic life very closely, then it stands to reason that our reality takes place entirely inside a simulation. With a powerful enough computer, he reasoned, simulation would be completely comparable to reality. The observed rules of our universe are comparable to the rules of a Mario game, in that they make perfect sense to the scientists recording them. In a video game, the rules of the universe are just as clear as the rules of our own universe. Dr. deGrasse summed this up well when he said, “whenever we’re doing good as a civilization, something bad happens to keep it interesting. Whether it’s Godzilla stomping through SimCity or a crazy president being elected, something always happens to mess things up.” This may have been a joke, but he also said it was one of his strongest pieces of evidence.

Although Mr. Tyson’s ideas about a simulated universe are tempting, I personally do not agree with them. My reasoning is this: given that simulations can never perfectly replicate reality, there is a point at which the original picture is too far lost. The ability to replicate reality could could be assessed as quality. It may take a series of stacked simulations to achieve a notable loss in quality, but eventually the new simulations will be completely unrecognizable from the reality being replicated. The loss in quality is comparable to energy lost to heat in entropy; only in idealized situations can a reality be infinitely replicated. There is no way that a computer could process such a number of simulations, because the perfect computer does not exist. Of course, I am only arguing against the idea that reality is a computer simulation. I have no qualms about the idea of our reality taking place in some other form of simulation, whether it is in a dream or otherwise. (In essence… The Matrix was a great movie with a terrible scientific premise. Feel free to talk to me about that some other time).

Just as in Mr. Miller and Mr. Grandy’s Greek interim, the topic of hubris was covered extensively in Tyson’s lecture. The Neilster even shared a letter he received, which said that the writer wanted to do a study about the psychological effects of feeling insignificant. The writer said that he recently visited a space station and was overwhelmed with these feelings, but Neil told the audience that that was the opposite of what he wanted to achieve. By giving this lecture, he wanted to both humble and exalt humanity. Humans needed to let go of their hubris, which was the idea that humans were extremely different from other species, and that action would allow them to appreciate the universe and the cosmos for what is really was. He wanted to show that, while humans were not the ones at the top, they were still playing a role in the universe.

Through letting go of their initial hubris, humans could recognize and accept the fact that we are not special because we are different. The Science Man said that humans and chimpanzees were only 1% different from each other. He explained that a smart chimpanzee could do something a human toddler was capable of. He used this distinction to say that sending rockets into space was then only 1% different from stacking some boxes to get to a banana. This difference, then, would make our greatest achievements completely primitive to any alien species which were only 1% different from our own. Tyson jokingly played the part of an alien parent: “Oh, look what little Tommy did! He composed a sonnet and mastered calculus in his pre-school today… I think I’ll hang this up on the fridge!”

Tyson’s way of thinking about our species’ mental capacity greatly mirrors my own. He thinks that it is entirely possible, if not completely probable, that our species is just too dumb to recognize the universe for what it truly is. Before, I may have struggled with this thought. Now, however, I readily accept it. Although I dislike it, I think that it is important to recognize the limitations of human comprehension. However, scientifically, it is crucial to persevere. Although we may not understand the cosmos, humans can try. Humans are getting smarter as they progress, and maybe one day we will have evolved enough to notice something glaringly obvious to someone that is only 1% different from ourselves… after all, that is only 1%.

In essence, the purpose of “The Cosmic Perspective” was to provide a sense of perspective. It hopefully humbled those who needed to be humbled and reminded many people of what was important. I strongly believe that Tyson accomplished his goal, whether by referencing Carl Sagan on five separate occasions or by cracking jokes, he appealed to everyone in the audience. He delivered his message, and people received it. Neil deGrasse Tyson was a prophet of science, delivering the words one lecture at a time. Like any great sermon, he also performed “a reading from the book of Carl.” His wise words hopefully stuck, forever to be remembered in the minds of those who attended this profound lecture.