Above: The Sombrero Galaxy from the Hubble Space Telescope
In December 2014, my eldest brother requested I do a reading at his wedding. Uninspired by the selection I could find, whose frequent religious allusions and cliché left them with little meaning, I decided to write one myself. To do this I borrowed a handful of phrases from Bill Bryson, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and strung them together with a theme and a message. It's a little mawkish, but I do think it has a nice message, and I'm proud that my brother liked it.
The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. In the observable universe alone, there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies; each with at least 100 billion stars - more stars in total than grains of sand on Earth. The existence of our sun, our solitary grain of sand, means that lost somewhere between the immensity and eternity of the cosmos, our minute planetary home floats like a moat of dust in the morning sun.
We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in this world that is overflowing with life. Yet most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred and fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. We humans, who are the first beings to devise the means for our own destruction, have only been here for several million years.
Even you are lucky; not one of your ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from their life's quest of delivering one tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence that could result - eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly - in you.
In fact, the very molecules that make up your body - the nitrogen in your DNA, the calcium in your teeth, the iron in your blood, even the carbon in your lunch – were made in the interiors of stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy inseminating pristine clouds of gas with the chemistry of life. You are fundamentally made of star stuff. And so am I. In this respect, we are all connected. We are connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.
It is these connections that make us special. Separated, molecule by molecule, we are nothing but mounds of inanimate atomic material. But put together again as humans, we are brave and curious, complex and romantic, and suddenly we have plans, aspirations, desires to take the greatest advantage of our intoxicating existence. Consequently, we feel that life must have a point, and we go searching far and wide for that point.
Our problem however is that when we look for things in life like meaning, motivation and love, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize that they must create their own love, manufacture their own meaning, and generate their own motivation. For it isn’t the atoms that define us but the connections between them that matter; it isn’t the people around us but our connections with them that makes life so special.
And when this is achieved, when great people get together and find complexity, reason, laughter, compassion, and ultimately love, on this tiny rock, floating through the vast and aged universe, it is definitely worth celebrating.