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Evolving systems course, week 3: the universe, the earth, and life

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the course forum area for Making Sense of Ourselves in an Evolving Universe, an Emily Balch Seminar being offered to first-year students @ Bryn Mawr College in Fall 2010. This is an interestingly different kind of place for writing, and may take some getting used to, but we hope you'll come to value it as much as students in other courses have.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is not a place for "formal writing" or "finished thoughts." It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. Imagine that you're not worrying about "writing" but instead that you're just talking to some people you've met. This is a "conversation" place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking, so you can help them think and they can help you think. The idea is that your "thoughts in progress" can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours.

So who are you writing for? Primarily for yourself, and for others in both sections of our course. But also for the world. This is a "public" forum, so people anywhere on the web might look in. That's the second thing to keep in mind here. You're writing for yourself, for others in the class, AND for others you might or might not know. So, your thoughts in progress can contribute to the thoughts in progress of LOTS of people. The web is giving increasing reality to the idea that there can actually evolve a world community, and you're part of helping to bring that about.

We're glad to have you along, and hope you come to both enjoy and value our shared exploration of evolving systems. You're free to write about anything you found interesting in our class last week, but if you need something to get you started:  what were your reactions to scientific stories of the universe, of earth, and of living organisms on it?  In what ways might these stories change the stories you tell?  the way you conceive/tell stories?

Summer's picture

The Human Being

 In last week's discussion, we looked at each other's creation story. I found that many of us wrote the story in the perspective of human beings. I want to say something about human beings in this space.

As a human being, we sense this world as an individual and we sense the world different from each other. A simple example can be some people like rainy days and some don't. Sometimes people do think about others, change an angle and imagine if they were someone else. However it's almost impossible to truly stand in one's shoes. Every living creature has a world of itself. We can only explore the one world in ourselves. It often makes me think, what kind of power-what thing can actually understand the world itself-I mean the world as it "truly" is. I feel powerless when think about this question.

Also. as human beings, we keep changing the world as we want. Who give us this power? Who get to decide in what ways to change it? How to be "right" and how to be "wrong"? Would the world want us to change it in our ways? I always believe in the idea that all the humans are born to be good, not evil. I believe that it's the earth's decision to make people good at first, but the earth can't really control what the grow up to be. A part of us grown up to benefit the earth. They do good things to the environment, the society, the offsprings and the impart of the culture. A small part of us do the opposite. While we are in the process of evolving and developing, we are also harming the planet we are living on. The smarter we get, we find "smarter" ways to hurt the earth.


I don't know what will happen if the earth can't bear with the changes, both positive and negative, what would happen? And at that time, what can we do? Will we be able to do anything?



Kirsten's picture


    During this weeks discussion, the question, where does Turners Origin of the Universe put my story in the larger scheme of things, was posed.  It makes my story feel small. Not small in the way that it no longer has any real meaning, but small in scale.  My story becomes part of larger story, instead of the center of attention.  I was just telling one small story of how a human can make a change to better the quality of their life.

    My story differs quite a lot form Turners story in the way that his seems very factual and scientific while mine was more of a fantastic myth.  Turners story laid down the facts about different types of matter in the universe and about other theories relating to he creation and the shape of the universe. My story story was quite obviously not  factual story of what happened to a willow tree, it was in  a sense a metaphor.

schu's picture

about science and myth.

I have been staring at my story, notes and Turner’s story for more than an hour, but I still feel that my thought is so blurred. I listed a bunch of differences between science story and myth. Then I just scratched out all of them except the last one: our feelings. Science story let us feel humble and tiny, like we can never touch the edge of the universe. At the same time, the scientist-style confidence suggests that we have time to figure it out with accumulating observation and fast-developing technology. Meanwhile, a myth looks like grandma sitting beside the fireplace, smiling in peace. (Though everyone has a different grandma….)


I don’t know which makes me feel better, being respectful to the unknown and ruling the lower class world by gifts bestowed by god, or feeling little and lonely in the grand universe and trying to jump out of the human-dimension? Every time on a plane, I look down on the model-sized houses, highways, lakes and forests. It feels like I need to change my aspect of view to life. The toughness and personal feelings become smaller and smaller, just about to vanish, like us to the universe. The bad things are just gone, and I think myself a saint. But when the plane touches down, all of the tiny things come back at one second, flooding into my mind. Maybe we can sometimes be powerful or saint-like, or just view the world at the time human do not yet exist. But it’s our need to turn ourselves back to an ordinary human being who lives in such a thin layer above the surface of Earth in the galaxy in the universe.




We still need myths. Myths give us power and satisfaction that we are not alone, and we have grandmas sitting there in warm homes. That’s a tradition in human’s time dimension which provides us a sense of belonging. For example, I am lying under the dark sky and observing the half moon. When I learn the scientific fact of the moon, I try to imagine the other half moon in shadow, which builds up a three-dimensional sphere in my mind. Then I will tell myself, wow, what a big celestial body, and what a tremendous universe. But for some moment, this idea bothers me because I am thinking way too far. I’d rather believe that it is a bright circle attached to the sky, which will be my company for almost every night.





And in the book <Maya >, by Jostein Gaarder(which I read in Chinese, so I can only translate a sentence from it), there is a saying:” The eye to watch out the universe, is the eye of universe itself.” This is a really bad translation, but if you can get its meaning, you might think that the appearance or human consciousness might not only be a coincidence. There is a chance that, we, the child of the universe, represent the intention that the universe wants to learn about itself. But scientists want to find the ultimate truth, and the only truth of the world. So maybe, there is a limit that we can never get to.




It seems that most of the words will be a part of my analysis…forgive me.








paige's picture

"In the end we will conserve

"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

Environmentalist Baba Dioum wasn't talking about stories when he made the above statement in 1968. You have probably all read this quotation on the front gate of a zoo or on the pathways of a park.
However, Dioum's words jumped to my mind when I thought about what to post here. On Thursday, we compared the responsibilities of stories and essays. We said something along the lines of "stories are more metaphoric, they resolve thoughts, play with language" and "essays are more explicit in making a claim, need disciplined subjectivity, write with sources." I think we were soon to forget how the two are intertwined. Viewed in our friendly, pleasurable light, stories have the power to bring the reader to arms for a cause - say protection of animals or the rights of indigenous peoples (King). Research is only really conducted in the areas where the money/influence/prestige flows into - largely, issues people (people with money) care about. The goals of an essayist are similar - many seek to raise awareness for an issue, to persuade, to counter a position. Stories may easily grab our hearts but essays can challenge our minds and make the difference for the more ?empirically? disposed. Our stories indicate what we love, what we understand, what we have been taught (by our parents, teachers, friends). It is no wonder our creation stories were so human-centric. I am not surprised that not many people want to be a soil conservationist (aside from those who grew up among agriculture) even if we lose 24 billion tonnes of topsoil per year because you never hear a story about eroding shorelines, do you? I suppose my post is calling us out on our lack of responsible story-telling again but its also a hopeful post because I think that we have the power to write our stories and our essays to move people. I am also patting King on the back for illustrating just how our stories can make us who we are and influence our actions.

Serendip Visitor's picture

The Human Being

In last week's discussion, we looked at each other's creation story. I found that many of us wrote the story in the perspective of human beings. I want to say something about human beings in this space.

As a human being, we sense this world as an individual and we sense the world different from each other. A simple example can be some people like rainy days and some don't. Sometimes people do think about others, change an angle and imagine if they were someone else. However it's almost impossible to truly stand in one's shoes. Every living creature has a world of itself. We can only explore the one world in ourselves. It often makes me think, what kind of power-what thing can actually understand the world itself-I mean the world as it "truly" is. I feel powerless when think about this question.

Also. as human beings, we keep changing the world as we want. Who give us this power? Who get to decide in what ways to change it? How to be "right" and how to be "wrong"? Would the world want us to change it in our ways? I always believe in the idea that all the humans are born to be good, not evil. I believe that it's the earth's decision to make people good at first, but the earth can't really control what the grow up to be. A part of us grown up to benefit the earth. They do good things to the environment, the society, the offsprings and the impart of the culture. A small part of us do the opposite. While we are in the process of evolving and developing, we are also harming the planet we are living on. The smarter we get, we find "smarter" ways to hurt the earth.

I don't know what will happen if the earth can't bear with the changes, both positive and negative, what would happen? And at that time, what can we do? Will we be able to do anything?

Hillary G's picture

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

My subject, as well as this thread's topic (Life, the Universe, and Everything) are both references to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That, incidentally, is my favorite book, and my Common App essay that got me into this school was about how I relate to it. The reason I bring this up is that the book is about some people traveling through the infinity of space, constantly throwing one comment after another about all those theories that come about when the universe is brought up. If the universe is so big, what difference do we make? Why are we here? What is the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything? Are we all just some cosmic joke? Or perhaps simply a freak accident of nature?

Well, humanity asked the same question in the novel and built a super computer whose sole purpose was to discover that answer. It did, in fact, find an answer. It said, "42." When humanity got all pissed off about it, the computer told them that it was, indeed, the right answer--they had simply not asked the right question. 

My point with all this is that we keep trying to find this all-encompassing "answer" to satisfy this human "yearning" for the truth. To this I say: what the hell difference does it make? Yes, the universe is huge. Infinite. Expanding far beyond our comprehension. I think this is important to learn about and awesome to think about (which is why I love this class), but at the end of the day, what does it really matter? I still wake up, go to class, do homework, hang out with friends, and work toward my future goals. I will always question the "truth" about the universe, but there's no reason to spend my life searching for it. The fact that existence is beyond my world doesn't make me feel any differently about the importance of making my own life a positive experience. 

I don't think the vastness of the universe makes us insignificant. I don't think it proves that a God exists. I think we were just a freak accident that billions of years later led to the evolution of human beings, and now we live every day in our own little worlds doing what we do. And I'm perfectly okay with that. 

Sarah Ann's picture

And Now For Something Completely Different.

Bonus if you get the Monty Python reference! Moving on...

Oddly enough, the one thing that struck me the most about our class discussion from Thursday had little to nothing to do with the creation of the universe. Part of the point of this course is to teach us how to write, so I feel this is relevant enough to merit a posting. At the beginning of class, we were talking about our papers and our writing styles, and how different the style of our next paper would be. Anne mentioned that here, unlike high school, we were allowed to speak from our own points of view as the voice in our papers. I don't know about anyone else, but in my high school, a paper was considered inappropriate and irrelevant if we used "I" or "my" in any sort of writing. We were taught how to write so we could pass standardized testing, really, and apparently expressing personal opinions is wrong. We lost points, sometimes even full credit for the paper if we wrote as "I" rather than an objective outsider. It struck me on Thursday, and I've been thinking about that since. What was the purpose behind that? Did high schools not want us to learn how to take responsibility for our own thoughts and words? I know, that's a rather over-dramatic and pessimistic viewpoint, but still.

nina0404's picture

Love Monty Python!!!!

As much as I wish I could just be talking about Monty Python thats not what this forum is for.


So I just wanted to let you know that your not the only one having difficulity with the writing portion. I to in high school was taught not use "I" in my writings. I was told not to put my opinions in my writings because it would basiclly degrade the paper.

Now we are being told to do the opposite. This sucks very much. I for one do not like writing in general. I find myself to be a horrible writer.

For this course I find it very difficult to write because for one I am confused about what we are writing about, two i am kind of confused about the class as a whole, and three I feel like what I write somehow doesn't fit.

So don't worry I feel the same way about the writing. I feel betrayed by the high school system, disdane for the college for making me switch, and most of all confussion and stress!

Erin's picture

Story or Essay

After the first essay paper, I kind of get the general idea how to manage my time in writing a three pages paper. After reading the Michael Tuner’s The Origin of The Universe, I somehow get confused about what kind of creation story should I write. The Michael Tuner’s article is more scientific one than interesting one. The major difference is the scope of passages. My passage is more human-centered based. It all about how human was created.

The dimension of Tuner’s article is much greater and more realistic. For me, the time I read the title of article, I already have the first impression that this article will take the scientific facts addressing this serious topic. Throughout the article, Tuner used the data collected by modern scientific technology equipment, such as Hubble Space Telescope to demonstrate the evidences of the origin of universe. The validness of Big Bang Theory or the belief of expanding universe and some hypothesis were verified or further proved by the continuous discoveries of generations of scientists. The time period is lasting over several billions of years. The article is more about the grand view of the outer space other than earth. As our instructor mentioned, it seems that “human didn’t appear in this space until the last minute. Even though this is a long passage, our mankind play such a small role in the evolving system that it is not worth to mention it. The whole passage shows me a brief introduction of the mysteries solved and unsolved about this amazing universe.

My creation story is more like a fairy tale. I remembered that the instruction was to write a story that you want to tell your daughter. For me, I clearly know that my story is not real at all and not logic in some parts as well. In my mind, I have seen a clear dividing line between a story and an essay. This also reminders me of the “turtle” we were talking last time. To be honest, I didn’t think it as anything worth more serious thinking. I just considered that as Thomas King’s technique to attract reader’s attentions. I felt ridiculous to talk about a simple story that only little kids will believe at first. Then I realize my stereotype of definitions of what’s useful may block me from further exploration critical thinking. My story will definitely be different if I was told to write a scientific one.

Basically, there is barely anything in common or even similar to be compared. The two passages were written for different purpose at all. If I am asked to tell my daughter about how the world was created, I will tell a beautiful fairy tale which consists of the ideals I used to wish this world has. However, one day, just like me, my daughter will find out fairy tales are not true. In most cases, there will be reasonable explanations for the good, the bad, the equal and the unfair. Sometimes, you just have to live with it. Science is a serious, meaningful, useful and required subject. My fairy tale somewhat reveals my fantasy or wishes. On the other hand, scientific articles are more factual not something you can change details for your own purpos

kbonds's picture

Blast From The Past

Forward: I re-read this and realized it is just my random thoughts I had after class on thursday. Forgive me if it is kind of incoherent. I'll organize it better next time.

This class has definitely not been the first time I have thought about the vastness of space and time (I was raised on Star Trek...) so I'm no stranger to the mind-effing factor that picture, etc, induces. I think it is important (for me) to point out that that picture of the multitudes of galaxies was also a story with life-and-story-changing-abilites. Because when I first saw a picture like that, in my freshman year of high school, it definitely changed me. First, it made me completely depressed at my insignificance, and I stopped believing in God, and life generally sucked because I had to find a way to live forever. Then I stopped being so dramatic and instead of being an atheist I'm now a Hopeful, and I decided that I'm not totally insignificant as long as I make an impact. So that all happened already, and seeing the picture and thinking again about how big the universe is just makes me smile upon the past.

During the time when the idea of infinite universe made me depressed, I rarely told stories at all because I thought nothing mattered in the big sense of things, and whenever anyone tried to make a big point in a friendly discussion I would either (depending on my mood) secretly think "This is silly, why are they even thinking about this, it doesn't matter" or I'd go on a big rant about how no one mattered unless we figured out a way to live forever. I did not make many friends this way.

In conclusion, the only way we can tell and conceive stories is by not thinking about the enormous universe at all. Or else someone will eventually say "Why does it matter?" and everyone gets all silent and it is very awkward, because no one ever wants to discuss why life actually matters with the people who don't think life matters. Believe me, no one wanted to talk to me when I was like that. 

If the story MUST include the universe/something infinite/existentialism, then by all means, tell it, but those couple depressed people who find no meaning in life but to find immortality will blankly glare at you until they find a way to interject their thoughts about why your point is invalid. I'm just telling my experiences (oh my god another story).

MC's picture

Thoughts in Progress #2

I'm used to thinking about the universe in terms of the ridiculously emense. I come from a very scientific home, and astronomy has always been a topic of interest. When my dad and I aren't talking about the Really Awful SyFy Channel Movie of the Week we're probably talking about space. The idea of our universe just being one universe in an infinitely larger one, or simply one incarnation (for lack of a less spiritually influenced word) of an ongoing reformation of the universe isn't new to me, but it's a new experience to talk about it with people who have varying levels of interest and knowledge in the subject and talk about it in a more philosophical manner. Attempting to realize our scale in the universe is a very strange feeling, and it's a feeling I'm used to keeping to myself, so having people discuss it was very... unnerving. I suppose that's because I think of people as entirely autonomous units that I can't predict, and then all of the sudden they're talking about something I know and it's like "Oh, I suppose it isn't a singular phenomena". I doubt any of that made sense, but it needed to be written down regardless.

The question I have written down from Tuesday is: Where does faith come from? That question really distracted me for most of the class period, because even though many of us tried to describe it in terms of a religious or spiritual origin I don't think it is, because I don't consider myself a religious or even particularly spiritual person but I do believe that at some point in my life I have to have experienced faith. I just can't think of a particular time. I can think of expecting things, but those are instances where I've been told something will happen and based on the general veracity of the statements given to me by a person or source I come to a conclusion to expect something. I'm not sure about faith though. Can anyone else think of a time where they've had faith and share it (if they're willing)?

LAJW's picture

Science & Myths


I think that the Thursday's discussion was interesting and it made more sense to me, since finally our discussion was more factual than philosophical. I enjoyed reading the article the origin of the Universe a lot and I learnt a lot about the Big Bang Theory from the article. To my surprise, most of my classmates felt how small and insignificant we are compared to the vast universe after reading this article. However, what came to my mind is that human beings are one of the most successful species living on earth. We are able to make good use of our advanced technologies to explore the origin of the universe which is far beyond our reach. Even though we are still far away from the final answer to the question, the spirit of the constant exploration of the unknown is encouraging. It is this spirit that differentiates us from any other species existed on earth and enables us to enjoy a more convenient life than ever before. Moreover, I was actually amazed by the fact that there are so many mathematic calculations involved in studying the origin of the universe. I just don't know how scientists relate their observations of the sky to difficult mathematic formulas. Hence, I felt that it was quite difficult to understand some of the concepts if we don't know relevant knowledge.


Back to the question... I think the difference between the stories (Origin of the Universe) we have been discussed on Thursday and the previous stories (Creation Myths) is that they are based on different school of thoughts. It is really difficult for us to tell which one is right and which one is wrong, since it is based on which school of thought you have faith in. However I managed to find a similarity between the two that is both of the stories reflect our human nature: we have faith in things we can never know in our lifetime. We always believe that something does exist and we just don't know what it is. Haha, I found this was interesting, since I start thinking in a way as a philosopher. I would not critique everything that contradicts commonly accepted scientific theories, but I would not support and agree with the ideas blindly. I will make my own judgement based on what I have faith in. Haha, I used the word “faith” many times in my article. “Faith” is a word that is usually used in religion. Is science a new form of religion?? Actually, I think that science is a modern form of religion and all of the scientific theories are supported by reasons. However, the powers of reason are limited and ,hence, imagination also plays an important part in the formation of modern science theories. I think even though some scientists would argue that science is not a new religion, the fundamental purpose of science and religion are somewhat intertwined.


All in all, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong to believe in any school of thought as long as we feel comfortable and as long as it can help us make sense everything happened around us in our lives.


CParra's picture

Comments about class!!

Well what can I say. I love the class.

The thing that really struck me was the fact that when I read the long assignment I was bored out of my mind. Science is interesting but only in small doses. I noted that the numbers are so huge that we as humans can not comprehend that much of anything. For example the amount of time the universe has existed. That amount of time is to huge to understand.


Now that I think of it, maybe that is why science was not as important back then. Because now when we say a huge number we can compare to lets say the amount of grains of sand on a beach or so and so cans 5 feet high on the whole planet we can sort of kinda compare.


But back there was not that amount of anything. Like in roman or greek times they wanted to find the answer but just couldn't there  was not enough technology or experience to fully understand their planet. they tried to understand in way that they only could bet that myths like we all say now but back then those story's were fact.


or when it came to religion when we as catholics based everything on adam and eve. why do we believe that because our brains can't understand such a huge time. we just took a short cut.

i rambled just now i hope it makes sense in my head it sounds better i think.


but in the end

every answer we get always leads to another question.

Just like when someone has a world record. creating that record is difficult like the greeks,romans, christians, catholics trying to find an answer.

but breaking that record is much simpler because now we know what to break for example science now.

bluebox's picture

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I feel like everyone (teachers, parents, movies, museums) has been trying to force this idea on me at every chance they have, so hearing it again was just another story. Kind of like an unimpressed "wow" and a nod of understanding.  I know the universe is huge, I know people are small and insignificant, but what am I supposed to do with that information? I can't really let it affect me, because the only result I can imagine is just believing that I am insignificant, none of my actions matter because there are so many people just like me. What's one wrong decision among millions? I could just live for the moment, without a thought to the future (because in comparison to the universe, what's 50 years? My life being less than what it could be wouldn't change anything in the long run). I could just go around and marvel in the beauty of the world, because that's all there really is.

Or, if I decided to let this affect me so that I would want to find the answer to everything, there's no point. What's the point of knowing? This guy I sat next to on a plane one time (who i think was a bit drunk because he was spouting off parables much more quickly than a sober person would) told me "Knowledge without action is trivia." If you know something and can't do anything with it, what's the point of knowing it? Or supposing it to be true, which would be more appropriate in this course.

My only reaction or change in how I perceive stories is that in the back of my mind, I suppose that I am insignificant. But to myself, I am the most significant. I can't devote everything to some abstract idea that somebody else had when my perceptions work better for me. We could be hurtling through space at inconceivably high speeds, but all I can tell is that the sun rises and sets each day and the stars in the sky move, and that's how I base my life. Hurtling through space has no effect on my immediate life. Unless we crash into another galaxy or something.

Something that I was reminded of during class was this:

It's a scale of the universe, showing things from as small as the strings in string theory to the entire universe (with many reference points in between). It's a lot like the things we were supposed to look at for class on Thursday, but it shows size instead of time spans with the bonus of cool background music.

Julie G.'s picture

I liked the link...

 In my paper I wrote about how inconceivable the size of the universe is. Whilst I don't know that I have any better a grasp on the size of the universe, that link was pretty fantastic! It was a little journey of relativity that helped to put things into a digestible perspective. Thanks!

Sarah Ann's picture


If this were facebook, I would click 'like'. But I can't. I just wanted to let you know how much I adore the "Knowledge without action is trivia," quote. Trivia = trivial. I will always wonder about the creation of the universe, etc., but that won't help me accomplish anything. I could spend time learning things I'm going to put to use, rather than dwelling on an ancient question. Oh, and I love "Hurtling through space has no effect on my immediate life. Unless we crash into another galaxy or something." It made me smile.

random question: is your title a Hitchhiker's Guide reference? Or is that a coincidence?

Angela_MCA's picture

 So I really enjoyed

 So I really enjoyed Thursday's class because instead of talking about stories and myths, we were talking about science.  This I find more interesting mostly because I believe it to be more truthful.  And to me, the mystery of truth is the most interesting.  Although I believe science to be closest to the truth, the idea of scientific theories being only stories is not something I would rule out completely.  I mean, many theories have been thrown-out or amended.  So why not the Big-Bang Theory?  It is a story used to make sense of observations that can't be fully explained.  But like many scientific improvements, I believe we are getting closer and closer to the truth.  While the Big Bang Theory might not be totally 100% accurate, it is in some way, more correct than any previous myth.  Maybe because the universe is so vast, it is too vast to explain or even begin to comprehend.  Maybe we'll never reach the truth.  And if we don't reach the truth, so what? Let people happily fill in the gaps of mystery with their spiritual justifications.  It's what human kind has always done and will continue to do both in the spiritual field and in the scientific field--fill in the gaps for some sort of satisfaction.

As for the small snapshot of the sky...WOW.  We are so small.  But I don't think we are insignificant.  An atom is the smallest particle of matter, yet it is so essential to the overall function of matter 10^56 times it's size.  But, I do like how the snapshot puts things into perspective.  It is important for people to realize they are not the center of the universe.  People are so pre-occupied throughout the day with little things like, finishing homework, making sure to do the laundry, making sure to call a friend about something that happened to you that day.  But when viewing this photo, it makes things like THAT seem insignificant. Like, who cares about these little tidbits of your life? Hello! Look at this huge universe with endless things to discover.  Stop fretting about the small stuff, there really is something bigger going on, something we might never be able to explain.  I hope I'm making sense!

Aimee's picture

Mind Boggling

 I remember a Sunday School class when I was 11 or 12 years of age, in which my teachers sought to explain how Genesis' account of creation complements modern scientific theories. "Look," they said. "'Let there be light.' That's just like the Big Bang! And if you look some more into Genesis, you'll see that life was created first in the seas, and then it moved onto land, before people were finally made. Evolution is the same way; it tells us life began in the sea. Yes, the Bible says life was made in a week, but who knows what a week is to God? One day could be millions of years!"


At the time, I believed that the Bible was a book of wisdom, and so the loose strings proposed by my teachers, which intended to tie together science and religion, became another argument for biblical truth. Considerably less gullible, I now feel that their assertion reflects humanity's inability to accept how small we are, and how little we matter, in an impersonal universe that has existed for billions of years without us.


To paraphrase the Bible, or at least one interpretation of it, God created us out of love. The laws of physics, the stars and galaxies, and every organism - from a simple bacterium to a human - were deliberately begotten by His desire to create. For ancient humankind, their limited awareness of the complexity of the universe facilitated the need for such God/s. Every morning brought new weather, every day people died of strange diseases, and every evening the moon changed its form, but no one understood why. People needed answers. The only unchanging factor in the ancient world was the "uniqueness" of its people - they could speak and think, they crafted tools, and, in many instances, their cities emerged from growing agrarianism. Thus, people could be perceived as special, and as many cultures demonstrate through their creation myths, humans saw their existence as central to the universe. Genesis' story focuses on the special covenant between God and His people - a story essential to the underdogs of the ancient world; the Mayans, who ate a staple diet of corn, believed that they were made of the same vital substance.


Now, as Turner explains in his article, within the last 100 years, humanity's scientific understanding of the universe has increased. People are no longer made of corn or clay; they are fashioned from atoms, which formed from the quarks that arose 10-34 seconds after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. Atoms, according to Turner, comprise 4.5% of the universe' matter. Everything else is dark matter, an invisible force that emits no light, and despite its presence, the universe is expanding outward and progressively cooling. Perhaps the fact that we exist at all, when considering the difficulty of recreating circumstances necessary for life, is enough evidence for people to believe that we are important to the universe, but I beg to differ. On the contrary, humans are too small to matter.


Consider the scope of a human life: we might live 80 years, if we're lucky. Consider next the relative age of hominids: 5 million years, roughly. Just as one human life is insignificant on the scale of human evolution, our existence - and that of our ancestors - is meaningless when compared to the 13 billion year lifespan of our universe. If Turner's later hypothesis is true, we might live in one universe within many multiverses, or be part of a repetitive cycle of creation and destruction; we are less than a blink of an eye, we are not central to the universe, we are nothing.  


"Nothing" is a hard concept for people to grasp. Just as many individuals reject the notion of mortality, believing instead that we will reach an afterlife, humans are just as likely to hope that a loving God fostered their creation. In a modern world, dominated by science, it would seem that religion has become irrelevant. Rather, religion has become essential for the majority of people, who feel that they must reconcile the vastness of the universe with their own insignificance. God is great, they think, and although we are small, we have a purpose given to us by God. We are loved. 


While my opinions differ, my commentary is not, however, an attempt to flippantly disregard all religion. For those with religious convictions, I hope they use their belief in a God-driven purpose for humanity's benefit. Still, everyone must humbly realize that humanity is small, and our role in the universe is to watch it unfold. With its mind-boggling complexity, we will always be awestruck...much like the ancients were when they first studied the heavens.  

elisagogogo's picture

a couple of thoughts

Hi. Good to talk to you here againJ 

Well, I have to confess that it’s getting harder to understand the class this week because we talked about the philosophic ideas a lot. While, I still find the class interesting, learnt and inspired a lot from it. There are a couple of useful and practical things I found in the class.

First of all, the writing strategy that was mentioned in the class is a brand-new theory for me. In the past, I was taught to write in a starchy way. Say, the outline comes to the first, and then details of each point and at last revise again and again. I used to think that writing is a way to tell others your thought so that I was afraid if people don’t get my meaning or think my sentences are not beautiful and flourish. Also, I found that in order to be “logic”, quite a lot of my points on outline cannot be put in an essay, which made me depressed. Now, I really appreciate the idea that “writing is a useful part of thinking. It helps you to think about what you are thinking. It clarifies your thinking.” “Don’t worry about not getting everything on your paper because not everything can be put in a paper.” To do the brain drain first, come out all you have in mind. Then organize the structure of your essay and clarify the central idea. At last, make it understandable to other people. Guess what? At this moment, I’m excitedly trying to write down my ideas like this~

Another thing I found interesting in writing is the point that “things should always be yours or it is a kind of steal.” In China, the thought of Confucius taught us that “Achieving one’s own goal yields gratification. Lending a hand to consummate others’ goal doubles satisfaction. Goals of self and others can be unified thus the world can be harmonized, (Reference:, so that we feel free to use other people’s words and ideas in our essays. Like in a Chinese writing exam, students are encouraged to use verse from any ancient poems without giving the reference. And teachers will regard it as knowledgeable. While the culture of western countries which emphasizes personality highly protects intellectual property right and see it as a kind of plagiarism.

The comparison of human and the universe in terms of time and space is also cool. Before the class, I was greatly impressed by the story about power, in which a girl told his grandfather that human being is so small compared with the world. But after discussing about the origin of universe, the theory of big bang, I came up with another idea. Is the vastness or the power itself the sign of power? Say, the universe, at very first, is a massive point without a big volume but contains incredible heat and energy. It is this potential that creates today’s universe, but not the volume of the point.

mwechsler's picture

A leap of faith

 I liked the difference between scientific theories and religious stories that Paul asserted in class on Thursday, this idea that scientific "stories" are perhaps more communal in their origins. Ultimately I feel like whatever you choose to believe involves a leap of faith. I believe in the big bang, which offers up many questions and mysteries, but they are the questions and the mysteries that I have chosen to embrace. I have faith that they have answers, and I imagine that faith to be spiritual in nature. 

Serendip Visitor's picture

The class discussion was

The class discussion was interesting. I was talking to a friend from the class afterwards and she was saying that she felt like, in the end, our ability to understand or grasp the size and depth our universe doesn't do much to affect me. (I use "me" to state the general opinion). It's also pretty overwhelming and frightening to think about just how tiny we are. How "truly" significant is that fact? Not very. All we can know is our little world, a tiny tiny piece of time since the existence of the earth. Since our world is so small, our limitations are so large. All we know is all that CAN be important to us. And, as Julie said, it's HUGE. I don't truly think there's anything wrong with not thinking about it. In a strange way, we're not supposed to.

However, what it can provide for some is perspective. It may be overwhelming for some to think of how truly insignificant one is in relation to all else, but sometimes it's comforting for others. You can think: this problem I'm dealing with now won't affect me tomorrow, next week, next week, in a decade. It's huge in my little world but tiny compared to all else. That is pretty comforting.

I've thought about this a lot, and after a while I came to a conclusion that I'm momentarily satisfied with. I feel like we don't have the knowledge or ability to truly grasp the size of the universe or the significance, since we need to grapple with the hugeness of our own lives. We live only ninety or so years so it's important, I think, to spend that short period of time making all that stuff HUGE. That doesn't mean ignoring our "insignificance" or the importance of the other things around us, because some perspective is nice at times. But to me, it means valuing what you've been given. Or viewing your limited sight as something beautiful because it's all you have at the end of the day. It's sort of comforting to me.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time worrying I wasn't living my life "fully" enough because I was living a really ordinary lifestyle. But after thinking about it a lot, I decided that living fully didn't have to mean doing crazy or grandiose. It's about perspective. Sometimes that means seeing the beauty in the ordinary. Like enjoying sadness as merely a part of the scheme of things or snow as a piece of this continuous, seemingly eternal cycle. It sounds sort of lame when I write it out but it keeps me happy, and that's what matters, right?

Finally, here is a saying that I like when I DO want perspective:

(That includes the history of the phrase too) Gam zeh ya'avor. I thought it was cool because it expressed the essence of life - whether good or bad, things will pass. That's what this course is about, isn't it? That saying got me through some pretty hard times in my past and humbled me during happier ones. That is all.

SoundsLikeBanana's picture

Something that really

Something that really resonated with me from Thursday's class was the idea that the difference between all the scientific stories and myths is that the scientific ones are "observations that need conclusions".

I believe that scientific stories and mythical ones are just that--stories. They were both observations and ideas that someone had to explain the origin of the world or universe. One may have more evidence or be more widely accepted, the big bang, but in all actuality they started off the same way.

The main difference between the scientific explantions and our own creation stories was the simple fact that ours tended to be more focused on the creation of Earth and the human race. In a psychology class I learnt that as a race we are very receptive to faces, voices, and people in general and this leads me to believe that that is why each of my classmates and I wrote humancentric piees. Also, we were very influenced by the creation stories we had read in class, those of different culture and religions, and therefore were much more likely to shape our own creations around them.



genesisbui's picture

There's Always More to Explore

It’s simply amazing; never would I have imagined that the image we reviewed in class was nothing more than perhaps an inch by half-inch rectangle piece of our night sky. And never did I imagined that within that small piece there would be perhaps a million galaxies, each containing a million stars of their own (I might be exaggerating but you get my point).

There is truly another frontier to discover. Quite frankly I believe that it’s in our nature to always continue searching for answers. I never want to feel satisfy with just learning about the limits of our world. We need to go beyond that, even if that means passing the boundaries of our very FEARS.


christinequeho's picture

Something to think about, not obsess.

I know that the universe is bigger than elephantine proportions, but I haven’t actually wrapped my mind around it.  Quite frankly, I don’t want to.  I already think a little town like Bryn Mawr is big. 

It’s not that I don’t like thinking myself as small.  This reminds me of a song lyric that goes, “and we’re all too small to talk to God.”  But, the following line is “Yeah, we’re all too smart to talk to God” (Panic! At the Disco).  Just because the human to the current visible universe ratio is 1:27 (Grobstein) doesn’t meant that we’re insignificant.

I like being small being.  To me, it’s familiar, safe, and comforting.  This is why I picked a small college and not a university (“university”… “universe”?  Hey, hey!)

That is all I have to say about that.  This entire idea of how large the universe is is fun to think about, but it’s not something I would care to obsess about.  Don’t belittle me if I want to look at the sky and admire the clouds and color instead of thinking, “We’re so small” or “I wonder where the sky ends, if it ever ends, or does it transition into darkness?”  Those thoughts are more like my “I just finished watching a sci-fi, so I’m going to ponder some heavy stuff for an hour” kind of thoughts.


Grobstein, Paul. "In Different Words." Serendip. N.p., 10 Apr.

2004. Web. 11 Sept. 2010.

Panic! At the Disco. "Behind the Sea." Pretty. Odd. 2008. CD.


Olivia's picture

interesting transition and more

Before, I hardly ever connected the scientific creation stories with the traditional creation stories, because scientific stories are like some theories from the Physics textbook while the creation stories are like fairy tales.

However, after the class, I realized that the scientific stories and creation stories are different in outward but the same in essence. First of all, their purposes are both to explore the origin of the universe. Secondly, they are both our guesses based on how much we perceive from the world. The creation stories in the ancient times were the guess based on what people knew at that time, which were “not true, but not made up.” The same as the scientific stories are today. As our scope of the world become larger, creation stories transfer to scientific theories. The knowledge used in creation stories is just a small part of the knowledge used in today’s scientific stories. Thus, our creation stories should fit inside the story of Turner’s. But, interestingly, the reality is the opposite. Our creation stories disappear if we acknowledge that Turner is right. How could that happen? I couldn’t figure that out.

When we perceived 1%(1% is just an example) of the world, we reasoned seriously and made a guess that the world was on turtles. When we perceive 20% of the world, we reason seriously again and make a guess that the world is NOT on turtles, which is totally the opposite of what we reasoned before. So, if we perceive 30% of the world, or 50% of the world, what will we get after the reasoning? Totally different from what we have right now? Will we have a totally different view of world as we know more and more about the universe?



ecollier's picture

Last Week & Influences

One of my all-time favorite t-shirt/poster/bumper sticker designs is a photograph of the milky way, with a arrow pointing into the mass. "You are here" it declares, giving the reader a real quick sense of perspective. Click the link for entertainment's sake. 

Photo of the universe shown in extra large size is an even greater reminder of our individual importance. It's reduced, if you don't understand. "Remember that you're not the center of the universe, remember that you're small," it declares.

I like that. A similar realization came over me a few years ago while upset and unhappy about the way life had treated me, and seeking refuge in the night-time stars. They gave me peace, and sanity. Enlightening. 

The same reflections go for evolution and our timeline link. 

Also, I'm willing to grow and evolve as a person. Hopefully by stating that so boldly, I can attempt to make it as true as possible. I also hope that others can allow me to influence them.

Everyone has something to teach and much to learn. I can't wait to continue!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Look out

Great Thursday! Now the class enters my favorite discussion part—something based on physical and biological theories. We started analyzing the true beginning through the scientists’ eyes and with the logical thinking, not those unrealistic “creation stories” or myths. I like the words on the homepage of our course web--real truth. I appreciate the reading materials which reveal or just talk about some natural phenomena and mysteries, driving my curiosity and passion to the unknown world. Even though I may never get the exact answer; even though I cannot figure them out through any encyclopedia; even though I find myself so tiny and superficial when I read and think about the macroscopic universe, nature and living beings, I still love the world, full of the secret and marvel. Seldom will people have Hubble space telescope or C-14 dating instrument, but they can still explore the world with the unlimited minds, even beyond 1027, the edge of universe.

What are the differences between creation stories and scientific articles? It must be a totally obvious question. One is subjective and mental while the other is objective and realistic. People who enjoy reading creation stories may not believe in those myths; but for people who like certain scientific article illustrating some theories, they must be the loyal adherent of those theories. For some spiritual things, people often choose the one they like most. On the contrary, for some pragmatic things, people tend to trust the one that is most persuasive. I seriously consider how to “re-conceive my story with an extended time dimension”. Does it mean that I should try to add some scientific element into my creation story make it more reasonable. Do not stag on the period of human beings! In a extended time trace, we are so new, young and negligible comparing to the infinite time of space and high possibly multiverses. Jump out of the earth and look out! Never stop the imagination about parallel universes before opening the “Schrödinger’s box”.

Serendip Visitor's picture

This is Bingqing' s post. I

This is Bingqing' s post. I am sorry that I forgot to log on.

FluteSound4's picture

Creation stories and the Universe

 One of the ideas brought up on Thursday was that in all of our creation stories we put humans as the center of the story. I really have to agree with this idea. Even in my creation story the Gods are humanized. What I mean when I say that is that we give Gods human characteristics, traits, personalities, etc. Sometimes the only thing that really makes them Gods are their supernatural powers or just where the happen to live (ie. the sky). Why do we put ourselves in the center of creation stories? Maybe in the past we did it because, well yes, we were a little self-centered, but that also has to do with the fact that people couldn't really conceive anything greater than the world itself. A few hundred years ago it was just the world that seemed to be enormous. To think of anything more enormous than the world would have been mind boggling! Also, one of the most simplest main characters we could have put in stories are humans because we know ourselves better than anything else in this world or universe. 

I always feel small when I read things such as "origins of the universe." I think it's because the universe is so big and it makes you realize how small humans really are. But don't get me wrong. I actually love astronomy and I love learning more about the universe. Not only was science the big difference between "origins of the universe" and our creation stories, but also that "origins of the universe" actually used concrete details. Sure, most of these concrete details are mainly theories, but they're theories that are highly regarded and looked upon in the science world (such as Einstein's theory of relativity). Most of our creation stories, or at least the little that we've read of each, all took some sort of fantastical route. We didn't use much science or back up our ideas with claims of dark matter. Most our stories were more simple in a sense. They were more familiar in a sense that it wasn't mind boggling to imagine or to consider, unlike the origins of our actual universe. 

Julie G.'s picture


The universe is so incredibly big! I  believe this. I believe that the sky is not just a piece of fabric with elaborative glowing shapes painted onto it, but that it is the atmospheric lens for Space. I believe that Space is huge.

Why do I believe this? Is it because, as one of our classmates highlighted, this story of the universe is the "least wrong story" we have today? Maybe. I think there's so much more to find out. I think that, as another class-member suggested, this information is potentially falsifiable. Especially as regards the Big Bang Theory. I like that we have it, and that it was deduced by current observation, working backwards, but I think it's a little shaky. What existed before the Big Bang, and how did it get there? Emptiness tends not to explode. But I'm excited about that. I hope I see a new theory emerge in my lifetime.


I kind of like being a little uncertain about these things. We've seen a number of creation stories thus far, and I like how they show how our ideas have, and can change. I like the notion that we are comprised of our stories, because it means that we can change. I hope that I change. I'm sure I will.

I believe in my reality, as well as the malleability of that reality. I like to think that I am "insignificant" (one of the words from the Brain Drain) in the grand scheme of the universe . . . it takes a little pressure off. I am "small" to the universe, but I am "huge" in my life. The ones I care for are also, "tiny" compared to the universe, but they are "so much" to me.

But does that make "all truth relative" (as was proposed in Tuesday's class)? I'm not sure. In some ways, yes. In others, no. It makes me think of yet another Brain Drain word -- "proof." What is proof? I need proof. Proof is the difference between the blanket sky, or the lens sky. Proof is why I will fly in an airplane without thinking it will fall, or cook without thinking the stove will catch fire (theoretically! If I use it correctly). So what is this "proof" thing, and how does it relate to "truth?" Or faith? When something is proven, does that mean it is true, or just that we can have stronger faith in it? Is that what truth is? Is truth is just "the least wrong story" and as such, we believe it?

Valentina's picture

Theories & Discussions

This week’s discussion was most definitely my favorite thus far; the reason being that I can appreciate fact based dialogue more so than philosophical dialogue. I find I leave the classroom with a stronger sense of satisfaction when I have concrete facts presented to me, or at least theories that have been accepted as the “least wrong” ones. In other words, speculation does little for me and, while I wouldn’t call myself “power hungry”, I won’t say that I don’t believe some truth holds to Francis Bacon’s old quote: knowledge is power.

However, I won’t pretend that I have any interest at all in how the universe began. While the “Big Bang Theory” is interesting on paper, at the end of the day, I find myself thinking- why did anyone waste their time on this? Who cares…? There is no doubt in my mind that many people in the past have dedicated their capable minds to exploring the topic of the universe but I’ll be so rash in stating I think they wasted their time. If Earth was made as a result of an explosion or if a giant whatever, alien for example, created it- what difference will it make? How will that change the way we live? Simply stated, in my opinion, it should not.

Finally, I want to address the fact that we have been referring to the theories accepted by the scientific community as “scientific stories”. Quite honestly, I do not agree with calling them that. These theories are not “just theories” and calling them “stories” reduces their value, making them seem like mere hypothesis. When, in reality, theories like “The Big Bang Theory” or Einstein’s “theory of relativity” are accepted as truth within the scientific community because they are based on observations and testable ideas. They are the result of extensive research and testing, not just the result of a few peoples’ creativities running wild on paper- leaving us with perhaps fascinating but nonetheless improbable and improvable stories. Until a theory is disproved by new observations and tests, I think it deserves to be accepted as the truth or, at the very least, the least wrong idea of our time.