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Feature - issue 5

The Human Cosmos

Words by Jo Marchant
Photography by Emilio Ramos

When NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield climbed out of the International Space Station for his first spacewalk in April 2001, it was the culmination of decades of training and preparation. A hard-headed, disciplined pilot, Hadfield had studied maths, physics, engineering and robotics. He had flown over 70 different types of aircraft. He had spent 50 full days practicing spacewalks in the pool. “I was completely technically prepared for what was going to happen,” he says. Yet in a sense, he wasn’t prepared at all.

When he first floated free in the vacuum of space, holding on to the spaceship with one hand, all thoughts of his mission - to prepare a 56-foot-long robotic arm for installation - temporarily left his head. Instead he was “attacked by raw beauty”. To his right was the velvet, bottomless bucket of the universe, stretching on forever and brimming with stars. And to his left, the whole world - an exploding kaleidoscope of colour - poured by. “I found it stupefying,” he said later. “It stops your thought.” Alone in his spacesuit, looking down on “six billion people and all of the history, all of the beauty and poetry and everything thatis human”, Hadfield says he learned something in that moment that a lifetime of books, lectures and calculations had been unable to teach:

“The power ofthe presence of the world, as told to me by my ability to see it.” Hadfield’s insight - the importance of his own ability to see the world - goes against the modern conviction that scientific observations and rational thought offer the best, if not the only, way to explore reality. In the western world at least, we have inexorably removed personal experience from our understanding of the universe. People once inhabited an enchanted (if sometimes terrifying) cosmos of myths and gods and spirits, in which meaning shaped reality and celestial events flowed through human lives and beliefs. Over the centuries, we have used a sieve of mathematical laws and equations to strain ourselves out of the stars.

There have always been those who fought against this trend, but overall the picture - the great achievement of science - is clear. We understand the universe as a separate external reality that exists regardless of how we perceive it: a physical realm that came into being billions of years before our ancestors first gazed at the sky and will continue for billions more after the last living creature is gone. Our knowledge of this universe now comes from measurements made by detectors and processed by computers, rather than any personal view ofthe sky. The approach has been breathtakingly successful.We can probe inside dust clouds; photograph impossibly distant galaxies; explore the afterglow of the big bang; detect minute ripples in the fabric of space-time. We can write an evidence-based account of how the universe exploded into being and make predictions about how it may end. It’s a privileged view of space that we are the first people ever to glimpse. By superseding our own eyes, we have achieved scientific insights and discoveries far beyond anything our mere senses could ever reach.

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