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The infinitesimal humans

Given our place in the universe, breeding orthodox thoughts despite scientific advancement reflects our backwardness, rendering morals and ethics useless

The infinitesimal humans

Yes, we are infinitesimal, albeit with huge bloated egos. The more we try to learn about the recent astronomical discoveries – extragalactic signals and a mysterious cosmic explosion – the more astonished we are with the huge universe, wondering how infinitesimally small we are. Only that, with our bloated egos, we keep tottering in mundane pursuits of wealth, squabbles and quarrels, fraud and corruption, killing in the name of religious bigotry – like what cow-vigilantes do – creating illusions and bribing the electorate in power-hunting or Hitlerism, rendering morals and ethics useless. These discoveries catapult our thoughts out of the narrow confines of selfishness to realise the need for humility. Although the Upanishads said, 'man is but a fraction of a hundredth part of the tip of a hair,' the cosmic time and space, in reality, reduce him to unimaginable times smaller.

Telescopes from Galileo's time, and now the radio-telescopes, have changed our knowledge of the universe. Using the latest equipment, scientists at the NW University of US captured the exact moment when a star 200 million light years away from us collapsed to form a black hole, which quickly flared up and vanished in a few days. The stellar debris of the explosion caused a spectacular glow, 10 to 100 times brighter than a typical supernova. In another interesting detection by Harvard scientists, mysterious extra-galactic signals, fast radio burst (FRB), were found, presumably emanating from powerful astrophysical phenomena billions of light years away which is being linked to planet-sized transmitters powering interstellar probes in distant galaxies by aliens.

For the layman, cosmic distances and time would be simply mind-boggling since we are used to distances measured only in kilometres and time only in years or centuries at the most. A light year is a distance of nearly 10 trillion kilometres travelled by a beam of light in one year (at the speed of 3,00,000 kms/second). So, 10 billion trillion kilometres is the distance of one billion light years.

Our Sun is a mere eight light-minutes away from Earth. And, with its family of 9 planets, 53 moons, thousands of asteroids and comets, it is just one of the small stars in our galaxy, Milky Way, which has 100 billion stars spread in a flattened disc extending to 1,00,000 light years from the central region. Milky Way is just one of the hundred billion galaxies having a total of about ten billion trillion stars in the universe. Now it is known that almost every star has planets, and as many as 1,25,000 Earth-like planets with life-sustaining carbon-like elements and oxygen could be there in the universe. The extra-galactic signals now received could be from one of these planets transmitted over a billion years ago. In such a huge universe, where Earth is not even a speck of dust, where does man stand? The perspective should make a man more humble.

Some hundred million years after the Big Bang, the primordial gas thrown out comprised only hydrogen and helium which caused molecular collision due to gravitational attraction similar to a hailstone formation we know. Such condensates constituted the embryonic proto-stars. The fusion process of hydrogen at extremely high temperatures with helium releases energy in the chain reaction. Once hydrogen is exhausted, helium starts converting into the next heavier element – carbon. It continues till the compact element of iron forms at the core and the fusion furnace shuts down. Gravitational force dominates and there is a huge explosion, converting the star into a supernova. The violence of this explosive event can be so great that the luminosity of the star increases thousand or million fold, so much that a single star may produce, albeit briefly, more light than an entire galaxy. This is what has been detected now.

A dying star becomes the cradle for a new star to evolve. It was about 4.5 billion years ago that our solar system was built out of cosmic dust left over by stars that had exploded in Milky Way, which is about 12 billion years old. One may wonder how to believe the figures. It is done scientifically by carbon dating. Since isotopes of lead are formed from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, which are in the stardust, the age of supernova's formation is determined. Where does man, with a maximum of hundred years, stand in this cosmic time? Our elders say life is like a bubble. But that is too modest. It is unimaginably lesser.

A related question that arises is the origin of life. Religions say that God created the entire spectrum of living organisations. Archbishop James, a theological scholar, with all his erudition of the Bible, concluded in the 17th century that the world in all its features including the biosphere was created in a space of six days beginning at 9 am on October 26, 4004 BC. All such beliefs only suggest spontaneous generation. Some people even suggested 'panspermia' – the concept that life had always existed somewhere in the universe, and that life was seeded on the Earth from outside our solar system without answering how life was formed elsewhere in the universe.

In the nineteenth century, Louis Pasteur demonstrated that living organisms arise from pre-existing organisms, thereby putting the concept of spontaneous generation of life at rest. In 1871, Charles Darwin spoke about 'warm little pond' with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., in which a protein compound chemically formed was ready to evolve. Later, Haldane explained that when UV light acted upon the Earth's primitive atmosphere in the absence of ozone layer, a variety of organic substances were made, including sugars and protein-like materials, which accumulated to form the 'Primordial soup'. The seeds of life were thus sown at the time the universe came into being, which gradually led to the emergence of life. And the processes of mutation and natural selection resulted in the bewildering variety and complexity of life forms in the world today. Moreover, studies of meteorites and comets have established organic molecules like amino acids, CO2, HCN, even methane – which lay the foundation of life – do get formed as a result of constant chemical interactions in the universe. And, the primitive atmosphere of Earth helped in the synthesis of a complex gaseous environment with fats, amino acids, proteins, urea, sugars, nucleotides, and then the most important molecule, the DNA in many biological processes essential to life. Initially, only the microbes could survive in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere. A cell is the basic constituent of all life forms, implying that the unicellular microbe is our great ancestor. The oldest microfossils found are aged 3.5 billion years. Free-living micro-organisms started living together in clusters. Gradually, they developed different mechanisms of replication that evolved along with their emergence. And, as the atmosphere too became more conducive, life form climbed on to the land from water. Hargobind Khorana had succeeded in synthesising polynucleotides in his laboratory using HCN as an agent. And, since HCN is a molecule present in the molecular clouds of interstellar space, the theory of chemical evolution of life is proved beyond doubt.

The significant aspect of all the scientific findings is that the crucial DNA molecule, which carries all the genetic information and is responsible for heredity and genesis of new organisms through mutations, RNA, nucleic acids, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, lipids, etc., is made up of simple chemical elements – hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, phosphorus. In turn, these basic building blocks are composed of atoms which are formed during the life activities of a star. A great deal of diversity arises from these few common components. Thus, there is a continuous link from the simplest non-living system of an atom to the most complex living system of the human species, all because of chemical evolution.

Yet, we are passing through times when yogis and religious leaders with their orthodox ideas are becoming rulers; spreading their rusted ideas in the society. Instead of redeeming people from the shackles of superstition and ignorance, they are being doomed into the past and orthodoxy, contributing to religious intolerance and violence. As a result, knowing well that the Earth is only a planet, people may still want to worship Bhumaata; being aware that man has set his foot on the moon, they may still want to worship the moon; knowing very well that Sun is just one of the small second generation stars in this immense universe, they may still worship him – chanting mantras that were designed when scientific knowledge was virtually non-existent.

Our outlook for life needs to change. Once we realise our smallness in terms of time and space and think rationally, we would perceive the reality – shedding superstitions and beliefs that are detrimental to society. It would lead to the realisation of oneness in mankind since all of us are made of the same chemical constituents; same cellular and physical structures; and have originated from the same ancestor – The Cell. Hindu Dharma includes duties towards others, shedding selfishness. We cannot afford to fritter away the infinitesimally small moment of our existence on this Earth.

(The author is a retired IPS officer and former member of Public Grievances Commission, Delhi. The views expressed are strictly personal)

N Dilip Kumar

N Dilip Kumar

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