Galaxy Evolution and the Meaning of Life

Sometimes it’s best to ignore the big stuff.

The Messier 81 spiral galaxy (Robert Gendler / Roberto Colombari / Hubble Legacy Archive / Subaru Telescope)

A few weeks ago I was at a conference about galaxy evolution. In the titles of many talks was the puzzling phrase, “secular evolution.” Secular? As opposed to religious? So secular evolution is galaxy evolution that’s not in the context of religion?  Surely not. I stopped listening to the talks and googled “secular.” It’s Latin, meaning “belonging to a certain age,” as opposed to “infinite.” Not helping. I opted for the extreme measure of waiting for the coffee break and asking an astronomer.

Secular evolution” in galaxies turns out to require a little context. Years ago when I started writing about the origin and evolution of the universe, “galaxy evolution” was a matter of connecting some pretty dicey dots. Cosmologists looked at nearby galaxies, at more distant galaxies, at the galaxies so far away you nearly couldn’t see them.  And assuming that most distant = farthest back in time = youngest, then those populations of nearby galaxies were grownups, the more distant were adolescents, and the far-away, babies.

Cosmologists arranged these populations into an evolution: Galaxies began as little blue messes, spun up into sparkly spirals, collided and merged into unchanging ellipticals. Galaxy evolution was interesting partly because it showed the universe growing up. The universe that formed those galaxies was aging with them.

But that was populations of galaxies, not individual galaxies themselves —demographics, not myelination and hormones and bones losing calcium.  So what’s secular?

Slowly, as observing instruments improved, cosmologists could see what was changing in the galaxies themselves: Stars were born and died, galactic centers changed shapes, black holes flared and faded, gas got breathed in and out. So this is secular evolution: It means life changes that are local, done for individual necessity, unrelated to anything external; life without reference to the Big Context.

These days I’m deeply into living secularly. And I have rules. I research stories, find their structure, work out the sentences, meet the deadlines. Dinner with a friend, drinks with another one, lunch, conversations that go nowhere but end in sweetness. Buy a mattress, weed the garden, lighten the dirt, and plant tomatoes.  Agree to community service regardless of how boneheaded and boring. Be careful of who to invite over. Don’t react to this egregiously dumb election, in particular, don’t get mad about what Hillary is and has always been up against, regardless of how unpleasant it’s made her; and don’t consider the gendered implications of “unpleasant.” Ignore the social death-wish of wealth inequality. Remember that some questions don’t have answers. Remember that some problems are complex and intransigent and won’t be solved and will only evolve.  Whatever the context—the universe, God, evolution, politics, society, life—let it go its own way. Stay away from meaninglessness.  Don’t think about getting old.  Leave death alone.

This post appears courtesy of The Last Word On Nothing.