The Total Perspective Vortex in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a device capable of extrapolating a complete picture of the universe – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from one small piece of fairy cake. It is a torture device. The torturer, if she or he so wishes, can plug on one end, the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and the victim can then be plugged into the other end: so that when turned on, the victim sees, in one instant, the whole infinity of creation and their self in relation to it. The experience paralyses or even kills the victim.
Let’s attempt at putting ourselves through a very, very weak version of this device. Because nobody has tried to build these amazing devices born of Adams’ genius, we’ll have to rely on a mix of books and videos.
We can start with watching the powerful short ‘Powers of Ten’ by Charles and Ray Eames. The architect couple, famous makers of wonderful objects like the Eames chair, made this film in 1968 (releasing it in 1977), by far predating Google Maps and The Pale Blue Dot. Starting at a picnic by a lakeside, the video takes us on a quick ride to the outer edges of the universe, and then, back again, deep into the human DNA and the atoms that inform its construction. Once we have established our insignificance in spatial terms, let’s go down a temporal tunnel.
“The cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” One of the most enlightening books that will put things in perspective for us would be Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, with its insistence that “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Let’s get on with it, then.
In an approximately 13.8 billion year old universe, our little blue rock formed around 4.6 billion (4600 million) years ago. Protons fused together in stars and new elements formed. The rich diversity of elements on earth created a possibility of millions of molecular permutations. Hydrogen reacted with carbon dioxide inside iron-sulphur bubbles, forming organic molecules like acetate, and a few hundred million years of accumulated reactions later, there were enough complex organic molecules replicating themselves. RNA and DNA evolved, and natural selection kicked in (to understand the principles of natural selection and evolution, read the very brilliantly put together ‘Introducing Evolution: A Graphic Guide’ by Dylan Evans).
Photosynthesis evolved about 3 billion years ago, simple animals about 600 million years ago, the homo-genus appeared around 2.5 million years ago, and homo sapiens started emerging 200,000 ago. It’s been only 25,000 years since the Neanderthals died out and the human being with behaviour traits similar to us today, became prevalent. Play with some evolution timelines online and let the idea of our infancy as a species sink in. I would recommend going to andabien.com, johnkyrk.com and bighistoryproject.com. My personal favourite is www.eoht.info/page/Evolution+timeline (also look up the Human Molecule, while at it).
An obvious choice, at this point, would be to dive into Bill Bryson’s greatly entertaining A Short History of Nearly Everything, but a more poetic place to go to, would be ‘The Lives of a Cell’ by Lewis Thomas - especially for its precious consolation that “There are some creatures that do not seem to die at all; they simply vanish totally into their own progeny. Single cells do this. The cell becomes two, then four, and so on, and after a while the last trace is gone. It cannot be seen as death; barring mutation, the descendants are simply the first cell, living all over again.”
Back on our timeline: it’s been about 12,000 years since the invention of agriculture in the ancient near east (roughly modern day middle east), and like all exponential consequences of accumulating reactions, this bibliography is going to explode, as well. The first thesis here, is Jared Diamond’s argument of environmental determinism, “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments”, in the perfectly reasoned, (but also disappointingly Eurocentric) ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. You could skip the book and watch the documentary instead, as with the mildly amusing ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan. Now, the subtle co-evolution of language, technology and the human brain, is best studied with the neuroscientists - it would be worthwhile to browse through Terry Deacon’s ‘The Symbolic Species’. Yet, the real fun begins with binging on V S Ramachandran’s absolutely incredible talks, but wait, we are skipping a step.
Why do we feel fear, joy, anger, disgust, excitement or disdain? Why do we behave the way we do? Charles Darwin in ‘The Origin of the Species’, and his following works, made the first connection between natural selection and behavior patterns. Yet, it took another century for evolutionary thinking to become the basis of studies in animal and human behaviour, and, consequently, of human interaction, relationships and society - and no book does it better than Richard Dawkins’ seminal ‘The Selfish Gene’, a masterpiece of piercing clarity and scientific reasoning, evolving the field of semiotics into memetics.
To finally counter the nihilism of this adventure, read the prophetic ‘The Last Question’ by Isaac Asimov. And if you are sufficiently inspired by Asimov's transhumanism, have a go at Kurzweil's claim that ‘Singularity is Near’.