How to See the Universe in a Human Birth

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

We are born in darkness and return to darkness yet through it all we are surrounded by light. It is not only a journey we share with each other but also an unrecognized journey we share with the Universe as a whole. Perhaps it's time to make that recognition explicit. Are we now ready to truly see our affinity with this cosmos into which we were born?

That is the most important question Alexander Tsiaras' stunning visualization, "Conception to Birth," raises for me and, I believe, for all us. Watching a clump of cells transform into the child floating in the dark sea of their own unrealized potential, our breath catches in our throats. But where does that reaction come from? What is its source? It's not just the beauty of the animation. There is far more at work here than just aesthetics. Instead, finding the source our response holds a critical lesson for us as individuals and as a culture.

Science can be a scaffold, a ladder we use to climb into the infinite and the infinitesimal seeing meaning in both. -- Adam Frank

Through the science animating Tsiaras' achievement, we catch sight of something sweeping that sweeps us up, something mysterious that holds a promise of self-knowledge in its mystery. Most important in the journey from Conception to Birth is that there's something we can recognize as innately and universally sacred, regardless of our spiritual inclinations (or lack of them).

Tsiaras' TED presentation reveals how often we miss the simple miracles around us. Caught in the daily tumble of commutes, to-dos, meetings and play-dates we fail to recognize the wild order that lays just below appearances. In doing so we also fail to recognize all the invisible scaffolding that keeps the Earth turning each day, keeps the planets gliding through their orbits, allows our cuts to heal on their own or carries our parents through their aging and our children through their growth.

Without some deliberate intention we simply forget to see it all. We simply forget that the world moves to its own rhythms and we are all a grand part of that grander cosmic symphony.

In this way Tsiaras' science becomes a gateway for us to experience that potent sense of "more" that has always been recognized as a feeling of sacredness. Tsiaras' data and its computer assisted visualization is like a path through a dense forest leading us, finally, to the ancient human truth that there is more -- more to life than just survival or accumulating wealth or fame. In the hushed silence under the night sky, before a mountain glade or even in watching a visualization of human development, we can experience that sense of more or awe that has been with us since we were hunter-gatherers following the herds tens of thousands of years ago. Only later will we parse that experience through a religious or secular understanding that can be argued over. But always and forever, it's the experience that comes first; it's the experience that matters.

Just as potent, in the development of the cell to a fetus to a child we can also see echoes of the Universe's other forms of evolution. Bundles of nerve fibers clustering in the developing brain reminds us of networks of cosmic gas and dark matter emerging in the Universe's infancy where galaxies like our own Milky Way are born. Similar, smaller scale networks of interstellar gas (though still stretching across light years) are forming right now within our galaxy and those clouds are the wombs of star formations where new Suns are being born. Finally, in vast disks of gas and dust orbiting those new-born stars, complexity and structure are rising upward just as it does in a developing fetus. Dust merges to form rocks and rocks merge to form mountains and mountains merge to eventually become planetary embryos. One day perhaps the worlds born out of those embryos will mother their own biospheres teeming with life.

Like nested Russian dolls, our journey and the Universe's journey share forms and storylines. We are born in darkness but are surrounded by the light of our own electric vitality. Stars are planets are born in darkness surrounded by the light of own their distant brethren. It is all a grand story saturated with meaning since, with our appearance, meaning firmly entered the cosmos. Who knows how many times, on how many worlds, it has happened before or will happen again?

That is how our collective reaction to Tsiaras' vivid science-driven account of human development suggests how we might enlarge our own collective human vision. Science can be a scaffold, a ladder we use to climb into the infinite and the infinitesimal seeing meaning in both. For both journeys outward and inward allow us see what is sacred in all the voyages which brought us here: from interstellar cloud to life-giving star, from orbiting dust to life-bearing planets, from the insemination of an egg to the birth of a human child. Each story reminds us of what cannot be forgotten.

We are here and we can see and it is, indeed, glorious.

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