009. Stardust: Are We Such Stuff?

Stardust: Are We Such Stuff?

Stardust: Are We Such Stuff?

Stardust: Are We Such Stuff?

Michael J. Genevro

03 September 2009

As I lay down to sleep last night, I, once again, compulsively checked my social networking account reaching out for friendship in the seemingly boundless ether of the Internet. I noticed a reference to a quiz that calculates a person's value; two people in my extended social circle had taken the test and received a response of $6.21.

The figure and the context struck a chord within me – actuallly, an anti-chord of disharmony and dissonance.

I really do understand that these kinds of games are for “fun,” but our play, like a Freudian slip, can reveal something deeper about our lives and our values.

$6.21 – I wondered about the source of that number and I remembered the calculation that appeared some years ago of the value of the chemicals that compose our bodies. As I recall, the original calculation was two times or four times greater than $6.21. Nevertheless, with the technological advances of the early 21st century and the impact of heartless downsizing, right-sizing, and workforce reduction, the $6.21 figure is a reasonable revision of the older data.

$6.21 --- of complex chemicals, of stardust ...

About 25 years ago, Carl Sagan's Cosmos graced the Sunday night hours of my television viewing. I loved Cosmos. The soaring images and the brilliant technology resonated with a seemingly limitless possibility for humanity. Most of all, I loved watching and listening to Carl Sagan. He was the ultmimate, cool personality for the hot medium of television. His voice, his voice, was mesmerizing even in its hushed, slightly slurred imperfections. He was the strikingly handsome and utterly brilliant interpreter of the scientific vision of the late 20th century.

Night after night, I watched Sagan, travelling through time and space on journeys I will never make, to worlds I will never see.

In the midst of all the brilliance and hope, Sagan recognized the Shadow of our technological society – the possibilty of utter self-destruction in a thermonuclear exchange and in the resulting nuclear winter. This Shadow stalked Sagan and his fellow-travellers throughout the series.

Then, one night, Sagan spoke movingly about the fate of humanity. He said that we humans are Stardust, the complex molecular chemicals from stars exploding billions of years ago. His vision and his words soared as he described our collective quest to journey beyond the grasp of our home planet; we are the stuff of stars, we are Stardust striving to return to our ultimate home in the lights of the universe.

At that moment, Sagan recalled the possibility of our self-destruction as a species. He portrayed that self-inflicted holocaust as unconscionable, the ultimate tragedy. His words wept at even the thought of such a destiny for humanity.

Much later, as I pondered Sagan and Cosmos in my own journey through time and space, I felt an uneasiness, a dissonance in my very being.

What are we? Stardust? – a lofty word for the complex chemical debris of supernovae?

If we are only Stardust, what is our value? $6.21 - in the social networking quiz?

If we are only Stardust, why is our self-destruction such an unconscionable tragedy?

Behind Sagan's hypnotic words and vision lay a fundamental contradiction, perhaps the fundamental contradiction of Western society.

If we are only Stardust, we are matter, but we do not matter. If we are only Stardust, we are only worth the $6.21 of the networking game. And our utter annhilation in a thermonuclear winter or in a carbon-dioxide-induced summer only means the re-composition of our chemicals – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Sagan's almost Biblical words masked an ultimate denial of our importance, of our value in a silent, heedless universe.

I still love Cosmos; I miss the brilliance and wonder of Carl Sagan. I wish that he were still with us on our collective, but lonely, journey.

However, I know that we are so much more than the dust of bygone stars, that we are so much more than $6.21 worth of complex molecules.

Our consciousness, our spirit, our souls bind us to a reality infinitely beyond the matter, the anti-matter, and the Higgs boson particles of our scientifc theories.

In the words and vision of another brilliant and wonderful human being, Abraham Heschel, the central question of life is not “What is man?” but “Who is man?” Despite the gender constraints of the English language, the answer to the latter question leads us on a journey beyond the stars to a home beyond the boundaries of an even limitless universe.

- Mike