As a child, I would look forward to the summer when I would go upstate to camp. It was a time to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and the constant overbearing human presence that occupied every inch of it. It was a time to get lost in the woods and see the world for what it truly was. I loved every aspect of it, the smell of the trees, the sounds of the birds and bugs, the simple chaotic beauty of the forest. I felt truly at home. The true magic however came once the sun went down and the stars would come out of hiding to reveal the true grandeur of nature. I would sit there and just stare at them, transfixed like it was some cosmic lightshow that I couldn’t peel my eyes from. From the Milky Way to shooting stars, from planets to the seemingly infinite number of stars, I knew them all. I knew their names, when they would show up, and were they would be. The unobstructed night sky is truly the greatest motion picture of all time.
As I grew older and stopped going to camp, it could be expected that I would forget about them like I forgot so many other parts of camp. Instead however my obsession with them grew, but instead of being content with just looking at them and knowing their names I want to know what they are? Where did they come from? How long do they last for? Can we go to them? Do they affect my life? Or are they just a curiosity?
I now know that around 14.5 billion years ago the big bang occurred. An immensely hot and infinitely small point of pure energy exploded and expanded. For the next three hundred thousand years there was nothing that we can even call matter. Once the first atoms of matter formed, consisting mostly of just hydrogen, it just swirled around with no discernible form for millions of years. Eventually however, the force of gravity due to small inconsistencies in the density of the matter started to pull it together. As matter started gathering into denser and denser lumps the atoms started to fuse, igniting and releasing huge amounts of energy. It was the age of the first stars and the universe was a mere three hundred million years old. Those first stars lived fast and died young, collapsing into supermassive black holes and it was around one of these that our milky way first took form.
Let us fast forward through the ten billion years or so during which our galaxy grew by eating all its surrounding neighbors and growing to its current size of 120,000 light years across. Billions of stars were formed and died and in their dying breath spewed out huge clouds containing all the heavy elements past hydrogen they had created, and then one day from one of these clouds our sun was born. Some of this dust and dirt in this cloud however, never made it into the sun but kept swirling about it like a huge disc. This dirt coalesced into larger lumps of material which stabilized them into nice elliptical orbits around their star.
For the next 1.2 billion years our solar system developed, dead and silent without a sign of life. The first life was something we probably would barely consider alive if we saw it, but it was from these humble beginnings on the relatively small planet we call earth that we arose. The simplest one celled life first formed in the oceans and they were the kings of the universe, its most complex life form for some 1.8 billion years. As life continued to evolve it discovered all sorts of things like eyes, mouths, hands, feet, sex, noses, ears, hunting, fruit, herds, and it kept getting bigger, more sophisticated and more complex. Somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 years ago (14.5 billion years or so after the big bang) the first of our species, Homo sapiens, evolved from the earlier primates. This led to a whole new form of living that involved social interaction, language, the seeking and preservation of knowledge for its own sake, art, music, and for the first time we had a creature that was conscious of its own mortality.
In 1988 (around 14.5 billion years after the big bang) for the first time ever in the history of the universe, I was born. I had not existed for any of the above mentioned events, and for that entire time it had not bothered me at all that I did not exist. Even by the smallest estimate the universe will still be around for at least another 14.5 billion years. If I am like every other living species that ever lived, for the next (at least) 14.5 billion years I will not exist either. I do not see why this should bother me at all.