My scientific worldview has always been tinged with a bit of paganism, but it’s taken me some years to realize it. Back when I was taking Astronomy 101 at the University of Louisville in 2001, I saw — for the first time — a visual depiction of the cosmic time scale of the universe, I learned about cosmic evolution, and the way we humans fit into that story. That is, I saw how we fit in barely at the end of the cosmic time scale and that we came into being as a result of the same natural processes that also resulted in bugs, trees, oceans, and pretty much everything else. I was especially smitten with the idea that we are ‘starstuff,’ since the elements that go into the making of life — including us — were created inside the huge fusion-furnaces of stars just like the ones we see gracing the night sky.
During that semester I was laying on my back in the backyard of my childhood home pondering that idea, and I experienced the incredible sense that the stars were my ancestors and that the trees were my cousins.
It’s been many years, but I never lost the wonder. I got the tattoo below on my left thigh just last year.
The idea that we are ‘starstuff’ is grounded in scientific facts, but it’s more than that. It’s an idea, a story — you could even say a myth, about who we are and how we fit into the universe. When I say that my scientific worldview is tinged with paganism, that is what I mean. And it’s entirely proper that our myths about who we are and were we come from and how we relate to the rest of the universe should be informed by the latest scientific knowledge. And the view of ourselves as part of an interdependent natural system leads me to not only accept as a matter of fact that we are part of the universe but also to consider how we should live in light of that fact. We are part of nature, and the ways we effect change in the natural systems (and we do) will come back and change us as well. Our interdependence with nature is a source of awe and reverence, and it brings me satisfaction to intentionally remember it both metaphorically and literally on a regular basis.