I remember as a child someone once telling me about a type of cicada that sleeps underground for years. There are a great number of them hibernating in the dirt, and somehow, on a special day, all of them emerge at once. They climb out of the soil and up the trees, where they shed their exoskeleton and take flight to find their mate. Once they’ve reproduced, the eggs are laid and the cicadas die. These eggs hatch on tree branches and the larva fall to the ground, where they dig into the dirt and the cycle begins anew. They too will spend years asleep underground, and emerge for a few frantic hours to proliferate themselves. Depending on how quick it all goes down, they may live as a flying insect for a few days at most, and just a single night at the least.
A recollection returned to me of digging in the sandbox and finding the empty shell of a cicada. It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t help but study it, scooped up in my orange plastic shovel. Suddenly that empty shell had taken on a new meaning. It was the spectre of a creature who had lived, maybe only a few short hours. Even to the perspective of a human child, probably six or seven years old, only having a few hours to live your whole life seemed like something of a sad story. One night only. Just a single sunset in the breadth of your whole being.
Our existences are brief. There is an expression, “we are not long for this world.” How true it is.
If you could live a thousand years, would life get boring? What if you could live a hundred thousand years? What would the meaning of life be, to someone who lived for so long? Would it be different than a human who lived a normal 80 years? What would the highlight be?
Given a different set of parameters, ambitions change. If a doctor told you tomorrow that you had one day left to live, you’d probably do something relaxing and introspective. If he told you three months, you’d probably book some flights, see the MVPs of your life, and maybe check out the Mediterranean like you always wished you had. If the doctor said you had 50 years left, well, you’d probably say, “thank you captain obvious,” and keep going in to work every Monday. But what if you had 500 years? You might start making some different plans.
“What is the meaning of life?” is a question somewhat like “what is your favorite color?” in that everyone will have their own answer, and there are certainly popular replies. “Blue” for instance, would be a lot more common than, say, “chartreuse”. Of course there’s no wrong answer, but I wonder what it says about our priorities when we compare what our objectives might look like, given a much longer time span to execute. I’ve been wondering to myself what my own ambitions would look like if I thought I had an extra century to get there. What does it say about the merits of my current goals?
At half-price books a few weekends ago I picked up a ten dollar hardcover entitled “Superstructures in Space” which contains boatloads of pictures illustrating the various craft we’ve sent out into the sky. Everything from the Hubble Telescope to Voyager to the Deep Impact spacecraft. A full-page image, taken by the Hubble, caught my attention. This photo shows a nebulous stellar nursery, where stars are born. A stunning sight, which explodes the boundaries of the mind.
What amazements could possibly await those who will someday voyage there? We think of our own planet as endless, and our lives as eternities, but compared to merely this one section of the cosmos, as captured by Hubble, they pale in size. More than tiny. Beyond minuscule. Like cicadas in the vast forest of space, our minds cannot grasp the richness, complexity, and subtle beauty of our surroundings. We are filled up with preoccupations of digging out of the dirt, and finding a partner, just in the nick of time before we all expire. We may be lucky enough to soar over the treetops for our own brief instant, but a towering pine in the distance, a mountain upon the horizon, and that great unknown beyond it remains hidden to us. Our time is too short to visit there. Our time is too short to even figure out what may lie there. Nevermind the world beyond that, and the world beyond that.“What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm? What is a thought, compared to the mind? Our unity is full of wonder which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.” -System Shock, 1994
In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan discusses the composition of Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in layers of frozen nitrogen snow. He says, “In some places the surface is as bright and white as freshly fallen Antarctic snows (and may offer a skiing experience unrivaled in all the Solar System).” Skiing on a moon of Neptune. Think about that one for a minute.
Then consider the fact that as wildly fantastical as skiing on Triton may sound, winter sports in our outer solar system is only one adventure, out of the innumerable adventures offered by our universe, on innumerable worlds, most of which are, in all likelihood, unimaginably different than Earth. By the time we get to Triton, the sport of skiing may be as ancient as games once played by the Mayan tribes, or the Incas. Humans will have since moved on to other snow sports, probably using technology not even conceived of yet. Something even more outlandish than Marty McFly’s hoverboard. By the time we make it to the stars captured in the Hubble image, homo sapiens will have long ago have evolved into creatures different than we now know ourselves. Maybe some elegant, drastically improved humanoid who evolved through cosmic radiation and scientific enhancement, devoid of the flaws of tissue degeneration, memory loss, and tendencies toward aggression, thoughtlessness.
These intrepid adventurers will set foot upon worlds we visited only in the ships of our imaginations, confined to the ground as we were. We may smile, thinking of our own yearning to travel to such exotic places fulfilled vicariously by our descendants, a way of reaching past the limits of our own single evening as a cicada in the forest of our universe, and fulfilling a goal too vast for the blips of our lifetimes; to see, to know the universe. To permeate it, populate it, celebrate it, to play a long, graceful part in it.