A recent New York Times story on the birth of the universe produces awe and amazement. “It’s not every day that you wake up and find what happened one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang,” quipped a prominent cosmologist (Science, 3/21). New discoveries of undulating gravitational waves appear to confirm the “wild theory” that at its beginning our universe instantly inflated a trillion, trillion times in size from a “subatomic quantum speck.”
Equally exciting for my money is the fact that humans like us have performed this magnificent feat of discovery. Through rationality, experimental observation, years of intellectual labor and flashes of intuitive insight, scientists have made an astounding leap in human knowledge.
I also envision this expanding scientific worldview as eventually having indirect effects on our moral imagination. In debates over abortion, for instance, the embryo has been discounted as having less value because of its miniscule size and brief existence in time. Yet compared to the universe as a “subatomic quantum speck” and a “trillionth, trillionth, trillionth” of a second old, a zygote is gigantic. Embryos also can be valued for their potential and dynamic organized energy toward development, now that this drive marks all known reality.
Will not our human perspective on number and the value of human life also be changed in the new cosmology? Against the backdrop of a universe filled with billions and billions of galaxies—and who knows how many possible alternate universes—it appears that instances of human life are uncommon. Given this precious rarity, each human life—from embryonic to elderly, from hardy to fragile, from healthy to diseased—can be valued and protected. Gazing beyond the stars we see life on earth with new eyes.