“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” - Carl Sagan
The word Cosmos is often used synonymously with ‘Universe’ and is an antonym of the word Chaos. Cosmos implies an order and profound interconnectedness of all that which exists.The optimist within us has always been on the lookout to find some cosmic connection in order to derive some meaning out of the absurdity of life. From an astronomical point of view, the sheer vastness of the universe and our minuscule existence within it often crumbles that optimistic hope.
Numerous philosophies and religions have actively attempted to give answers to such existential and metaphysical questions by trying to establish an affiliation to a higher power, cosmic entity, or the universe itself.
The philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is a non-dualistic or monistic belief system that states that there is only one unifying and eternal reality called ‘Brahman’. The individual soul known as ‘Atman’ is identical to the ultimate. Implying that on a spiritual level, we are all connected with the Cosmos.
Some of the early natural philosophers such as Thales and Heraclitus adopted a monistic approach in answering questions of metaphysics, believing that a single material substance was the originating principle of nature. Several others believed that there were 4 or 5 primary elements. Namely, earth, air, fire, water, and aether (The controversial element, aether signified the material to exist above the atmosphere in space) and that various combinations of the first 4 elements created all the known matter on earth.
Among this prevalent perspective of reality, Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus presented a more distinct view. They had theorized that everything that exists is either atoms or empty space. The atomic theory of Democritus defined the atom to be a fundamental, indestructible and eternal particle. As it was defined as eternal, no account for its origin was given. Though most details described by this theory such as its description and characteristics of an atom are incorrect, at the crux of it, the theory of atomism holds some validity as the conceptualization of atoms being the building blocks of all matter is known to be true.
As natural philosophy evolved into natural science, eventually the atom and its sub-atomic particles were discovered. An array of atoms make up all the matter we know and are systematically arranged on the periodic table. Approximately 92 elements are inherently found on Earth but they weren’t created here.
The first few elements on the periodic table, primarily hydrogen, helium, and trace amounts of lithium were formed shortly after the Big Bang. These gases were spread unequally, hence clumps of it collapsed together and formed the first generation of stars.
Stars are truly fascinating objects that are primarily composed of hydrogen. They twinkle as little diamonds in the night sky, but up close they are monstrous globes of gas that power themselves through nuclear fusion. The heat and pressure at its core is so intense that hydrogen atoms start merging together to form a helium atom. Therefore, heavier elements following the initial few were forged in various stellar evolutionary processes.
The life cycle of stars is closely interlinked. The death of a star can trigger the formation of the following generation. Our star, the sun, is a 2nd or 3rd generation star. It solely holds about 99% of the solar system’s collective mass, yet it is puny when compared to the most massive stars known. In a mid-sized star like our Sun, helium atoms can be further fused into carbon atoms. Carbon is the building block of all known life on Earth. Our body is made of the same atoms that were once formed within a dying star.
A more massive star has the ability to carry on the fusion and create heavier elements like oxygen, calcium, and iron. As a star reaches the end of its lifespan, it ejects up to half its mass into space creating an envelope of gas and debris and exposing the star’s core. These stellar graves are truly a sight of wonder! Both in terms of what they signify and the way they appear. As these stars explode, they leave behind probably the most gorgeous cosmic formations, a supernova. Even heavier elements such as silver and gold are formed in a supernova explosion as the accelerated ejected matter merges together. It is speculated that a supernova might have triggered the formation of our solar system. The expelled material from it was poured onto the planets that formed here.
Look all around, essentially everything around you is made up of elements that were created eons ago in stellar evolutionary processes. Astronomer Carl Sagan quotes, “The Nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are all made of starstuff”.
Even though our existence may seem minuscule to us, events that have occurred on a grand scale have played out their effects resulting in our creation. So, if we are looking for the link that connects us to the universe, it is within ourselves.