But if our objective is deep knowledge rather than shallow reassurance, the gains from this new perspective far outweigh the losses. Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs—in time, in space, and in potential—the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star… We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.

The garden and the sin…

So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.

Cosmic Purpose…

The evidence, so far at least and laws of Nature aside, does not require a Designer. Maybe there is one hiding, maddeningly unwilling to be revealed. Sometimes it seems a very slender hope. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

Humbling us…

Even today, the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years, it still takes my breath away. In every culture, the sky and the religious impulse are intertwined. I lie back in an open field and the sky surround me. I’m overpowered by its scale. It’s so vast and so far away that my own insignificance becomes palpable. But I don’t feel rejected by the sky. I’m a part of it, tiny, to be sure, but everything is tiny compared to that overwhelming immensity, And when I concentrate on the stars, the planets, and their motions, I have an irresistible sense of machinery, clockwork, elegant precision working on a scale that, however lofty our aspirations, dwarfs and humbles us.