A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago I came across a study that projected that the formation of a supercontinent on Earth could wipe out humans and any other mammals that are still around in 250m years.
The mass extinction would be caused primarily by heat stress as a result of greater volcanic activity precipitated by the continental plates converging on each other, putting twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as current levels, while an older sun would emit more radiation. The dominance of inland deserts in tropical regions would also make the supercontinent, known as Pangea Ultima, largely uninhabitable.
I clicked on this study with an eagerness that rivalled my daughter’s current enthusiasm for mangoes and the foaming-at-the-mouth anticipation with which I consume UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, IYKYK) news stories.
The paper’s lead author, Alexander Farnsworth, from the University of Bristol, had this to say on the prospect of another extinction event. “The Earth has a very changeable environment. Humans are very lucky with what we have now and we should not be pushing our own climate beyond the cooler climate that we evolved through. We are the dominant species but Earth and its climate decide how long that lasts,” he said. “What comes after is anyone’s guess. The dominant species could be something completely new.”
As I contemplated the implications of this study while preparing my daughter’s school lunch, I thought about the fact that dinosaurs had ruled the earth for a staggering 150m years (what a run!) while we humans have been the dominant species for a cosmic blink of an eye (whose eye, is the question).
It also made me think that the chances of us crossing paths with an alien civilisation are perhaps slim on a cosmic timeline. For one, how likely is said alien civilisation to survive long enough to be technologically capable of interstellar travel, and, even if they could, would we be around to meet them? If aliens arrived in 300m years, for example, we will likely have checked out, according to this recent study. By that time, as Farnswoth points out, there might be a new dominant species on the planet. Perhaps robots will be in ascendance or something even more advanced than them, I thought, as I peeled a carrot, which led me to another thought: it’s probably unlikely that aliens will reach us because those aliens will have probably advanced to a stage in which they have the capacity to create species-ending AI, so it’s more likely that in 300m years our robot descendants will be contacted by extra-terrestrial robot equivalents.
As I said, all of this musing occupied my mind for a blissful couple of minutes as I prepared my daughter’s lunch (fuck it, I thought, she can have Tiny Teddies, what does it really matter in the grand scheme of things). While you might expect news of species extinction to generate feelings of nihilism and perhaps some disappointment, I felt a sense of awe at the scale of the cosmic timeline, a sense of profound (and some would say much needed) humility about my place in the universe, a respite from the petty stresses of the everyday (dude, you can’t bring a bike on a train at peak hour) and a renewed commitment to be grateful for every moment we’re on this earth.
That science can provoke reflection that is both existential and possibly spiritual, is not as unlikely as you might think and may offer benefits to your mental wellbeing that mark this wide-eyed contemplation as something beyond facile daydreaming. A new study by psychologists at the University of Warwick has revealed a profound connection between the spirituality of science and positive wellbeing, much like the benefits usually associated with religion.
“Spirituality is most often associated with religion, but science can be a powerful source of awe and wonder for many,” says Dr Jesse Preston, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Warwick and lead author of the study. “It can provide a meaningful source of understanding oneself and the universe, and it can foster a sense of connection to others and our place in the world.”
In three studies, Preston and her research team surveyed 1197 people (602 men, 589 women, and 6 others) on their attitudes towards religious beliefs, spirituality and their interest and belief in science.
The first study established the concept of “Spirituality of Science”, and asked people about feelings of transcendence, connection and meaning when engaging with science. The study found that scientific sources of spirituality may be psychologically similar to religious spirituality.
In the second study, the researchers focused specifically on a group of 526 atheists and agnostics and found that Spirituality of Science was correlated with measures of psychological wellbeing, such as happiness, and meaning in life.
“Previous research has found that religious belief generally predicts positive mental wellbeing, but it has also implied that non-religious people may be subject to poorer psychological wellbeing,” says Preston. “This research has found that in fact, sources of spirituality outside of religion, like science, can have similar positive effects.”
The natural reaction to this, of course, is to mutter, “Well, I’ll be damned”, though you probably won’t be, at least by God, in my extremely humble, largely meaningless opinion (IMEHLMO). But perhaps you should feel blessed—again, not by God, IMEHLMO—for your silly kitchen-sink musings might serve a purpose.
Ultimately, I’m inclined to invoke the prodigal backyard chemist Jesse Pinkman (a messianic figure to some), who once exclaimed, “Yeah Mr White, yeah science”. Or as Mr White says later in the same scene, “This is the first day of the rest of your life” … on this small chunk of extremely fragile, constantly evolving-on-a-time-scale-you-can’t-even-conceive-of rock in a universe that could just be a simulation. But if that doesn’t do it for you, you can always just pray.