Excellence Reporter: Dr. Shostak, what is the meaning of life?
Seth Shostak: Nearly a decade ago, I spent a day on a sound stage during the filming of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a reprise of a classic 1950s sci-fi drama. I was there as a science advisor, and my brief was to ensure the technical accuracy of the setting and the script. Mostly I just stood around, watching the cast and crew manufacture entertainment. But there occurred an unexpected interruption in this effort that suggested that even Tinseltown – all fluff and fakery – wrestled with the greater questions of existence.
A need to reset the lights had caused a short break in the filming. While the crafts people attended to their duties, I was cornered by two of the film’s principals, actors John Cleese and Keanu Reeves. Leaning in close, they asked me a question in hushed, conspiratorial voices: “We’re here for a reason, aren’t we?”
I wasn’t entirely startled by this inquiry, as I am frequently asked about matters of religion or philosophy by members of the public. Long ago I decided that this is because I’m an astronomer. Astronomers deal with the very largest-scale structures of time and space, and many people assume that this job requirement gives such scientists special insight into the meaning of life. That logic has never made much sense to me; it would be like assuming that someone who enjoys mountain climbing has some special wisdom about plate tectonics.
But while I have often been asked “does God really exist?” the actors’ question was something else: they wanted to know if their lives had a significance beyond the everyday.
For a moment, I puzzled over the motivation for their query. After all, both Cleese and Reeves are highly successful, clever, and well recognized. I’m sure there are many people who envy their lives. But it struck me that they were engaged in an occupation that, in many ways, is like factory work. Making movies is a communal endeavor, and one that demands the efforts of hundreds – nay, thousands – of skilled people. Yes, there’s room for creativity, but films are not like books or musical compositions, where one person can have full control of the outcome. It’s a team effort, and a lot of it is clearly a slog. Even if the film is successful, it’s seldom more than a fleeting moment of entertainment – a brief interlude of amusement in the millennia-long story of humankind.
Without doubt, making movies seems glamorous, and perhaps it would be unbelievably exciting for a year or two. But after half a lifetime, I can well imagine that some of its practitioners might want to be assured that “we’re here for a reason.”
Well, one thing that astronomy tells you is that Earth is no more than a speck of dust in a vast arena. It seems probable that there are many trillions of similar worlds sprinkled throughout the small fraction of the universe we can see. In other words, from the standpoint of science, we are unlikely to be anything special, other than to ourselves.
Consequently, my answer to the two actors was simple: “You know, if you had asked me this question 100 million years ago, I would have replied that ‘you’re just another dinosaur.’ And honestly, I don’t think the answer is much different today, other than the specifics of your species.”
I didn’t have the impression that they were gratified by my response.
~Seth Shostak, Ph.D., is an American astronomer, currently Senior Astronomer and Director at Center for SETI research.
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