When Barack Obama spoke in Berlin this past week, he spoke of the improbable journey that has brought the grandson of a house servant, and the son of a Kenyan goat farmer, to center stage in an American presidential election.
But we are, every one of us, on an improbable journey.
I’ve been watching on DVD the NOVA series titled Origins: 14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, hosted by Dr. Neil deGrassi Tyson, and it has frankly unnerved me.
Do you realize the threads of contingencies and improbabilities on which our lives have been hung on?
One fact, from the science documentatry, to keep life in perspective:
The earth, several billion years ago, was smaller than it is today, and had a molton sea more than a hundred miles deep.
Fortunately for us, Earth was hit by a large planetoid, perhaps the size of Mars.
The result is that we now live on a planet large enough, and with enough stored heat energy, to have sustained, to this day, a molton core.
Why is this important?
Because without a molton core that moves about under the ground, our planet would have no magnetic field, and without a magnetic field deflecting the sun’s “solar wind,” our atmosphere and oceans would rapidly evaporate, scorched away by the sun’s radiation.
Mars once had an atmosphere like Earth’s, with liquid water running on the surface, and a denser atmosphere, but because it’s a smaller planet than Earth, its molton core has now cooled, and its surface is barren. It has no magnetic field to deflect the sun’s “solar wind” as it moves through its orbit.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in a 1965 lecture titled “The Roots of Romanticism,” once said that:
[Y]ou become aware of the self, not at all in the act of cognition, but simply though being impacted upon. This Fichte called the Anstob, ‘impact’, and it appeared to him to be the fundamental category which dominated all experience.
In other words, our identity is discovered by us, and formed by, as it were, chance smashings into other people and things.
Likewise, the Earth had an improbable chance smashing, and it is now a planet with the following identity markers:
- a molton core,
- an atmosphere,
- and an ability to sustain life on its surface
Because of its chance meeting, billions of years ago, with a planetoid the size of Mars, these three things make up part of the Earth’s identity.
The encounter even threw off the debris that, by gravity, coalesed into the moon.
Yes, the moon is in the sky as a direct result of a cosmic smash up four billion years ago. It is the thrown up debris of a giant crash.
So when you see the moon at night, you might think of Earth’s distant planetoid impact, and the improbable series of events that it set into motion.
Barack isn’t the only improbable, and contingent, thing in the universe.
So are you.