The Nature of Our Existence

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Teachers and Parents: to use this page with your class or at home with your children see the “To Teachers and Parents” section below.

 

 

For countless generations we have explored our Earth, revealing its majesty and the unique interdependence of its systems that gave rise to life, and sustained life for billions of years. We have also come to realize the fragility of our world, and the stresses human activity can induce on a planet-wide scale.


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We have long known that Earth is a member of a planetary family bound to the Sun our star, and have long wondered about the greater heavens and our place in space and time.

 

Since the dawn of the space age, we have even traveled to other worlds—with humans to the Moon 1968-72, and with robots to planets, moons, comets and asteroids of the Solar System. We have landed on Mars first with Viking in 1976, and at this writing, are roaming its surface with Spirit and Opportunity. Over 20 spacecraft have visited Venus. Mariner 10 sped by Mercury three times in 1974-75 and now MESSENGER is on the way. Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 conducted an initial flyby reconnaissance of the outer planets 1973-89, followed by Galileo in orbit around Jupiter in 1995 and Cassini now operational in orbit around Saturn.


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For 400 years our telescopes on the ground—and now in space—have peered beyond our Solar System, to planetary systems around other stars, to stars in birth, and to the remains of stars that died long ago. We can see the structure of our city of stars, the Milky Way galaxy, and have revealed its stature in the greater universe. And we are looking for others like ourselves. Others who also need to know of worlds beyond their own.


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We have done amazing things. Yet to Earth, we are a species of microbes. And Earth is a tiny world orbiting a tiny star, in a galaxy of 100,000,000,000 stars. The Milky Way is itself just one of 100,000,000,000 galaxies in a truly minuscule portion of the universe we are able to see.

 

These are precious few words that frame the nature of our existence—and our capabilities. We have the ability to know all this!

 

I say!” murmured Horton. I’ve never heard tell
Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.
So you know what I think?… Why I think that there must
Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!
Some sort of creature of very small size,
Too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes…

—Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who!, 1954.

 

Driven by innate human curiosity, and hard work embraced as a labor of love, generations past endeavored to reveal the nature of … home.  Now, standing on the shoulders of those past generations, we see the majesty of the universe. And while we may seem small in its shadow, beauty has nothing to do with size—for the universe is revealed with something the size of the human mind.

 

It is also true that what we see of the universe is seen through a fog of still missing understanding. Surely most of its secrets remain to be revealed by future generations.

 

But the future is not yet written. If we are to ensure this remarkable legacy of human exploration, every generation—this generation—must be inspired to learn what we know of our world and the universe and how we have come to know it. We must TEACH our children. It is the only way to keep the chain of generations past unbroken. And as teachers we must recognize that the journey is written in their genes… the book of knowledge is not. So with the gift of patience, and artful guidance, we must set them gently, naturally on their journey in quest of knowledge—always remembering it is their journey. And what is our reward? Teaching is the eternal bond between young and old that is at its heart—joy.

 

This is the story of our existence—a race of explorers, 6 billion tiny souls strong. It is a story that ignites wonder about the universe, and a sense of pride in our ability to reveal its nature through both human imagination and ingenuity. It is a story that humbles us, and brings a sense of humility to our lives. It is a voyage that forever changes one’s perspective of home.

 

 

To Teachers and Parents

Invite your students or children to read the page above carefully and thoughtfully. Then have them reflect on Earth’s place in a greater space, and explore whether their sense of “home” has been altered and how. What words come to mind after reading this story? How is Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss more than a children’s book? Is exploration something we’ve been doing for a very long time? Why? Do they see themselves as the next generation in this adventure?

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7 Responses to “The Nature of Our Existence”

  1. Pat Miller Says:
    May 28th, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Your final paragraph essentially sums my philosophy of teaching. We are the tiny speck that makes all the difference!

  2. Robin Brennan Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    I am always looking for ways to teach astronomy using technology, writing , imagination and encourage the students to view it as a personal journey through their universe. Your site has opened that door. Terrific! Thank you.

  3. good783 Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    You have captured my feelings and passion for the importance of educating my students, young and old, about the importance and wonders of the Universe and space exploration, thank you!

  4. Patty Rifkin Says:
    May 30th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    your essay above reminded me why I taught space exploration to my students (I retired in June) and why I will always personally have a lifelong love of space and what we as a people do there.

  5. Chip W Says:
    August 19th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    If more people would think about stuff like the size of the universe being 156 billion light years in size, and come to realize 1) What’s going on is way beyond our puny ability to comprehend (opinion), and 2) How infinitesimally infinitesimal we are, they might come around to thinking that not wrecking the planet is more important than how much money is in their wallets.

    Or, they might come to think that, if the earth were to suddenly vanish, the universe wouldn’t even notice, so what difference does it make?

    Personally, I find meaning in my infinetessimality. It provides context.

    Chip Whittingham

  6. Sally Jean Jensen Says:
    September 4th, 2009 at 6:26 am

    I love this story and will use it in my teaching for middle school students. Usually there is a “print friendly” tag at the end of your stories. For this one there is not. Thanks for your insightfulness and another tool to help students wonder and ponder about the universe.

  7. Annette Iwamoto Says:
    September 28th, 2009 at 9:17 am

    The education pages are fantastic, so many avenues from which teachers may select. Thanks for all of the downloadable photos.

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