The Human and the Cosmic

Neil Armstrong – the first man to set foot on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin right behind him and Michael Collins orbiting above – died precisely one year ago. I wrote a clumsy tribute that evening. This is it. (Recommended soundtrack: “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong.)

August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong died today. His heart gave out.

I’m reminded of Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino. Each of the stories is narrated by some inscrutable form – a cloud of dust, a reincarnated dinosaur, a particle before the big bang. But their souls are familiar – boastful or bashful, stoic or lovelorn. The stories juxtapose the human against the cosmic, making a grand, tragic comedy of each. Salman Rushdie called it the greatest short story collection ever written.

Neil Armstrong died today, and my thoughts orbit, again and again, around those two ideas: the human and the cosmic.

I’m not sure how many humans have ever lived – 50 billion, 100 billion? I don’t know how many languages have been spoken and lost, their oral literature forgotten even as it was composed. But each of those languages, I’m sure, could name the following: man; walk; moon; and death. And so, if you could place yourself beneath any night sky in our history of one hundred millennia, you could explain to the people: “A man died today, a man who left Earth and walked on the moon.”

Or, better yet: Forget our earthly languages, our flawed organs of communication. Imagine speaking with an outsider, one of Calvino’s narrators, and tell him this:

We humans, reared in this thin envelope of air atop this great round rock; we humans, addicts of air and water, with bodies so vulnerable that they splatter after a mere hundred-foot drop; we humans built a ship and sailed it through a lifeless chasm so vast it could swallow our entire planet 30 times over; and on the other side of this chasm, a human disembarked, and ran a gloved hand over the fine lunar dust, while the earth glowed blue in the distance.

The cosmos is never so cosmic as when contrasted with our frail little bodies. And we’re never so human as when we’re facing the cosmos. The small is only humble, and the large only majestic, when set against one another.

Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong – you who did what any human could name, and what none could fathom.

4 thoughts on “The Human and the Cosmic

    1. A friend of mine once observed that trying to imitate Armstrong (Pops, that is) in singing ‘What a Wonderful World’ invariably makes one yawn.

  1. Estimating the total number of people to have ever lived is quite an interesting problem though. Now, I’m never good with Fermi estimates, but doesn’t 100 billion sound too few, considering the fact that over 7 billion of them are walking around even at this moment? Now, I know that the population has been growing at an inflationary rate and all that. One other number I have to go by is that during the Black Death, 40 million out of 120 million people in China were wiped out (which I vaguely remember from some History lesson). So, if in these few centuries the population of China has increased tenfold, there probably weren’t too many of us around to begin with, yes. But still – doesn’t 100 billion sound too few?

    1. It’s a really good question!

      Only skimmed it, but this seems like a decent analysis, and they come up with under 110 billion.

      I guess it depends how far you go back. If you push their start date back another 50,000 years, and assume a stable population of 5 million people with a life expectancy of 10 years for most of that time, then you’ll add an additional 25 billion. So unless we go way before H. sapiens, we’re still settling somewhere under 200 billion.

      (My first guess of 50 billion was crazy low, though.)

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