Great Story Quotes
from the book
The View from the Center of the Universe
by Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, 2006

Visit Primack and Abrams' website for their book:

  • "Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people. A human without a cosmology is like a pebble lying near the top of a great mountain, in contact with its little indentation in the dirt and pebbles immediately surrounding it, but oblivious to its stupendous view." (p. 84)

  • "It feels unacceptable to many people even to think of having a cosmology based on science. They misinterpret freedom of thought as requiring a refusal to believe anything. They see fanciful origin stories as spicing up the culture. The problem is, however, that spices, even in the most artful mixture, cannot compensate for the fact that there is no food — no data, no evidence. Such stories are not actually about anything beyond themselves. We are not arguing to throw away the spices but to start with some food and then only use those spices that improve the food at hand. Scientific reality is the food. Aspects of many origin stories can enrich our understanding of the scientific picture, but they cannot take its place." (p. 85)

  • "Human beings are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust. Except for hydrogen, which makes up about a tenth of your weight, the rest of your body is stardust." (p. 89)

  • "Most people tend to identify themselves with fairly narrow categories — a nationality, a race, a religion — which leads not only to conflicts but also to a stunting of imagination and potential. The wider our sense of identity, the more likely we will be able to experience our genuine connection to the universe. If a lost child who knew nothing of her background and had been raised by an indifferent family suddenly discovered that she was the direct descendant of an illustrious house traceable back many centuries, her sense of identity would expand momentously even before anything else changed. The discovery of our own cosmic genealogies may have a similar expansive effect. We humans are luminous, stardust beings." (p. 119)

  • "When the Newtonian picture destroyed the comforting medieval universe and people stared out into endless space and shivered at how small they were, they felt for the first time the existential terror of cosmic insignificance. But even though the universe is overwhelmingly larger than those seventeenth-century people imagined, we humans are not insignificant, because we are citizens of the luminous and rare; the tremendous complexity of our minds lets us do what no amount of dark matter or dark energy can ever do." (p. 120)

  • "Living in the consciousness of planetary-scale time deepens our identity and, most importantly, reveals the opportunities of our time, which, if we rise to them and embrace them, can provide us with the kind of cosmic meaning that humans have sought for thousands of years." (p. 130)

  • "Medieval people felt themselves at the stable center of a great spherical universe. They were heirs to the Greek imagination, which burst out of the effectively two-dimensional flatland cosmos of Genesis to a three-dimensional universe, and they captured this insight for all time in the cosmology of the heavenly spheres. In their picture of the universe, God was outside and cradled the whole structure of nested crystal spheres. They were wrong astronomically that Earth is the center of the universe, but they were right psychologically: the universe must be viewed from the inside, from our center, where we really are, and not from some perspective on the periphery or outside." (p. 131)

  • "The history of the universe is in every one of us. Every particle in our bodies has a multibillion-year past, every cell and every bodily organ has a multimillion-year past, and many of our ways of thinking have multithousand-year pasts." (p. 151)

  • "Our animal/human creation stories may have their place as metaphors for our lives — but no longer for the universe beyond the solar system. They're misleading metaphors for photons, neutrinos, quarks, and dark matter; they connect us to the wrong universe. We need to connect to our universe. (p. 152)

  • "Many people today contemplate the stars and the vast distances in between and conclude how insignificantly small we are compared to the universe. This view has contributed to a sense of alienation and sometimes even despair that have for more than three centuries been a reaction to humanity's demotion from the pinnacle of God's creation to a tiny speck floating in endless space. But now we understand something we didn't know before: Everything in the universe is significant on some scales, insignificant on others. We humans exist on the only size scale where great complexity on the one hand and immunity from relativistic effects (like the speed of light) on the other are both possible. Real thinking is the job of our size scale — beings more or less our size, bigger than an ant, smaller than a mountain. Our consciousness is as natural a blossoming on this special scale as a star is on its size scale or an electron in its own." (pp. 173-75 )

  • "The great miracle of our universe is that something is happening. Galaxies are evolving. Life is evolving. We are not just eternal potential — we are part of a great story." (p. 197)

  • "Thinking cosmically doesn't require zipping around the Galaxy visiting aliens. It simply means integrating the new cosmic reality into our thinking whenever we try to understand what's going on in our world." (p. 240)

  • "People today are still picturing a Newtonian universe, or in some cases even a medieval earth-centered universe, while exploiting technologies based on relativity, quantum mechanics, and other new science. The major threats to human survival today — world environmental degradation, extinction of species, climate destabilization, nuclear war, terrorists with weapons of mass destruction — result from unrestrained use of such new technologies without a cosmology that makes sense of the nature and scale of their power." (p. 240)

  • "We try as a culture to ground ourselves in each other, rather than in the earth and the universe, but we might as well try to stand still in a riptide. We humans need to ground ourselves in something real that is greater than we are. The new universe is as real as anything can be. It's happening here on Earth, as it is everywhere — that's why our technologies work. But cosmic truths will be useless if they are merely post-it notes stuck on a Newtonian image of reality. If we want to survive and thrive, we must factor such truths, to the extent we understand them, into our policies, plans, and actions. Thinking cosmically can change our behavior globally, but to think cosmically we must begin to see through cosmic metaphors By 'cosmic metaphors' we don't mean just figures of speech but mental reframings of realtiy itself." (p. 242-43)

  • "One's thinking should always be on a larger scale than one's actions if those actions are to be meaningful. To act wisely globally, we must think cosmically." (p. 252)

  • "Metaphors are powerful and can be perilous, but the danger can't be avoided by locking them in a drawer. Our best defense against their possible misuse is to encompass them in a higher understanding." (p. 253)

  • "At the end of cosmic inflation, the universe settled into a slow and steady expansion. Only then did it enter its most creative and long-lived phase during which it produced galaxies, stars, planets, and life. The fundamental character of the universe has been to grow in complexity." (p. 255)

  • "We have to stop fearing the coming changes as merely material sacrifices and start seeing them as cosmic opportunities — not to acquire more but to become much more." (p. 255)

  • "Navigating between these worlds of different scales is a constant negotiation for any human who is trying to live consciously at the center of a meaningful universe. The seriousness of the overall world situation does not at all require endless seriousness on the personal level. Our job is to live with joy while doing everything we possibly can to improve the odds for our planet. Our species best hope is energized, not demoralized, individuals vigorously and creatively attacking large-scale problems, but guiltlessly living fun, loving lives on the small scale, whether or not we succeed on the large." (p. 260)

  • "How do we choose life for our planet? Life is the entire four-billion-year process of evolution on Earth. To choose life is to nurture and protect this great cosmic process." (p. 263)

  • "From a cosmic perspective, our larger identities are bound equally into the past and future of our species and our planet. To discount the future, as though consequences that will only hit a later generation are insignificant for present calculations is a crime against ourselves, not just against our descendants, because it distorts and truncates our concept of what we are." (p. 263)

  • "Many people comfort themselves with a pendulum metaphor of history — a very Newtonian metaphor. Today no technology dependent on accurate timekeeping would rely on pendulum clocks, and neither should any serious analysis of history. The pendulum metaphor falsely reassures us that things may swing from one extreme to the other but that there's no need to worry because they always return to the middle if we just wait long enough. From a cosmic perspective, the metaphor of history as an endlessly swinging pendulum is completely inappropriate and dangerously hypnotic. On larger scales time has an arrow and the past never returns. The current period of exponential growth in our impact on the earth is a singular point in human evolution: we who are alive today just happened to be born around the time when the curve of human population was rising most steeply. The long-lived universe was shaped by an instant of cosmic inflation. We are living in that same kind of dangerous but fertile instant in the life of our species right now. We hold a special power that no one may ever wield again: the power to shape the very long-term future not only of our species but many others. When inflation ends, this power may be lost, and the resources and organization to carry it out irretrievable. Now is the season for planting the seeds of a long-lived civilization." (p. 265)

  • "What is possible versus impossible depends entirely on what universe you're living in. Until you understand the universe you're living in, you cannot know what is possible." (p. 267)

  • "We must live as though we are setting the pattern for the future. At any moment, we may be. How the present period of human inflation ends will determine whether the stable period that is coming will be dark and repressive or will nurture the human spirit. It may sound terribly overwhelming and even unfair that so much responsibility for the future rides on every decision we make. But no — this way we live large. This is what it means to matter to the universe. Like the ancients who felt there was a bridge between their acts and the invisible beyond, our generation's choices will have power over times and size-scales that we can hardly imagine. If we take on the cosmic responsibility, we get the cosmic opportunity — that rarest of opportunities for the kind of transcendent cultural leap possible only at the dawn of a new picture of the universe." (p. 267)

  • "Cosmic perspective is the greatest gift that modern cosmology gives us. It reveals that the Big Bang powers us all, galaxies and humans alike, in different ways on our respective size-scales. Every one of us is entitled to say, 'I am what the expanding universe is doing here and now.'" (p. 269)

  • "Most people's cosmic imagery is left over from earlier notions of the universe — the flat earth of the Bible, the heavenly spheres of medieval Europe, or the endless emptiness of Newton's meaningless universe. We don't live in those universes. There is real dissonance between the colorful, volatile, science expanded world we actually inhabit and the monotonously recycled language that religions use to describe 'ultimate reality'. Anything described in tired metaphors from an admittedly unreal world must inevitably be accompanied by doubts and eventually boredom and indifference. The lack of a meaningful universe is a modern mental handicap." (p. 269)

  • "If we intend to navigate Earth's coming transition from inflation to stability successfully, with sanity and justice, we will need to inspire huge creativity, intense commitment, and immense stores of enthusiasm and raw hope. To guide and use this human energy will require every powerful tool that people have ever come up with, including religious truths, ancient mythology, science, and art, plus a detailed picture of reality." (p. 270)

  • "We are central to the universe. This belief has been the foundation of all centering cosmologies of the past, but today it is no longer merely an assumption. Now we have evidence. During the centuries between Newton and the current cosmological revolution, however, people could find no such evidence and abandoned centrality as wishful thinking. Instead, they embraced the notion that humans are insignificant, isolated beings in a vast, mostly empty space, and made the best of it by finding a kind of nobility in self-deprecation. This has led to the cultural result that the phrase 'I'm human' now means basically, 'I make mistakes,' 'I have my limits,' 'Don't expect too much of me.' Admitting our own imperfections and apologizing for our mistakes is a worthy purpose for invoking this phrase, but thinking of being human essentially as a limitation is a self-fulfilling prophecy and denies us our cosmic potential. In the expanding universe, human beings are not only significant — we are central in at least seven different ways:
    (1) We are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust.
    (2) We live at the center of our Cosmic Spheres of Time.
    (3) We live at the midpoint of time, which is also the peak period in the entire evolution of the universe for astronomical observation.
    (4) We live at the middle of all possible sizes.
    (5) We live in a universe that may be a rare bubble of spacetime in the infinite, seething cauldron of the eternal meta-universe.
    (6) We live at more or less the midpoint in the life of our planet.
    (7) We live at a turning point for our species." (pp. 270-72)

  • "We live at a turning point for our species. From the point of view of the generations alive at this moment, it is late enough that we are sobering up to the scale of our problems, but not so late that we have lost all chance to solve them. This is a very special time that will never come again." (p. 272)

  • "Successful cosmologies have been centering for a reason. Humasn experience our own consciousness at the center of our reality — we always look from here, from some point of view that is characteristically us. This is why all descriptions of reality, whether based on science, logic, philosophy, or authority, that contradict this hardwired internal sense will feel unsatisfying. They may be believable and yet not believed. The only place beings with a consciousness like ours can ever feel ourselves belonging to the universe is at the center." (p. 272)

  • "We are at the center of the principles that uphold the universe, and our generation is the first to know it." (p. 272)

  • "There is nothing in modern cosmology that requires the existential view, nor anything that requires the meaningful view. The bottom line for both views is scientific accuracy: both hold that interpretations of reality where science is compromised for ideological purposes should be rejected. But given this bottom line, an attitude toward the discoveries of modern cosmology is every person's choice. The existential view automatically feels more familiar and natural because the West has cultivated it for generations, and much that is beloved in art and culture reflects it. But where the existential view veers off into emotions like despair or resignation or a feeling of insignificance or even of dark satisfaction, those emotions are arbitrary and unnecessary. The meaningful universe encompasses the existential, in the sense that the meaningful can understand the existential, but the existential cannot see the meaningful.
       The choice of attitude is not a casual one. Cosmology is not a game; it has the power to overturn the fundamental institutions of society." (p. 275)

  • "Claiming our centrality does not imply that the universe was created for our eventual arrival or evolved with us in mind. Dark matter didn't herd a dispersed, fertile mix of hydrogen and helium into a small region at the center of our Galaxy so that those primal atoms could easily interact and evolve into stars and worlds in preparation for us. Dark matter didn't commit itself unconditionally for billions of years, with never an instant off, to hold the atoms in its charge safely in a stable home Galaxy for us. Dark matter doesn't cradle the entire Milky Way — and all galaxies — in delicate, invisible hands, protecting it from the cosmic hurricane of dark energy tearing space apart outside because it cares about us. It does all these things because it has no choice. Its behavior is built into the order of the universe. Nevertheless, we benefit." (pp. 276-77)

  • "Integration of science and meaning is considered by many scientists to be a danger to science, but a science that doesn't consider its own meaning can be a danger to everyone esle. Interpreting modern cosmology is — if anything — a sacred responsibility." (p. 276)

  • "[Modern cosmology] tells us that the universe encompasses all size scales, so any serious concept of God must at least do as much. 'God' must therefore mean something different on different size-scales yet encompass all of them. 'All-loving', 'all-knowing', 'all-everything-we-humans-do-only-partially-well' may suggest God-possibilities on the human size-scale, but what about all the other scales? What might God mean on the galactic scale, or the atomic? A God disconnected from this amazing universe that science is revealing would be a God entirely of the imagination — in fact, well worked over by many imaginations. But a God that arises from our scientific understanding is not entirely created by us. Such a God runs deeper than humankind's imagination and is speaking in some way for the universe itself." (p. 276)

  • "There's a joke among cosmologists that romantics are made of stardust, but cynics are made of the nuclear waste of worn-out stars. Sure enough, the complex atoms coming out of supernovas can be seen either way, but these atoms introduce into matter the possibility of complexity, and complexity allows the possibility of life and intelligence. To call them nuclear waste is like calling consumer goods the waste products of factories. A cosmology can be a source of tremendous inspirational and even healing power, or it can transform a people into slaves or automatons and squash their universe into obsession with the next meal or with trivial entertainment. The choice of what attitude the twenty-first century will adopt toward the new universe may be the greatest opportunity of our time. The choice between existential and meaningful is still open." (p. 279)

  • "The scientific discovery of our centrality tantalizes us with the prospect of finding meaning and purpose deep enough to inspire and transform our culture, and this transformation could happen. The meaningful universe offers us a home in the great scheme of things, and the feeling of confidence and comfort that come from knowing that we are central. But these benefits are not free. The price is that we have to live according to the cosmological principles that make us central, understand them, and continually enrich our mental vocabulary with imagery worthy of them." (p. 279)

  • "Scientific knowledge does limit the imagination, but only in the same healthy way that sanity limits what we take as real." (p. 280)

  • "I stand here on the Cosmic Uroboros, midway between the largest and smallest things in the universe. I can trace my lineage back fourteen billion years through generations of stars. My atoms were created in stars, blown out in stellar winds or massive explosions, and soared for millions of years through space to become part of a newly forming solar system — my solar system. And back before those creator stars, there was a time when the particles that at this very moment make up my body and brain were mixing in an amorphous cloud of dark matter and quarks. Intimately woven into me are billions of bits of information that had to be encoded and tested and preserved to create me. Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced me." (p. 281)

  • "Every cosmology since the flat earth has been counterintuitive at first, but cultures succeeded in re-envisioning reality every time on the basis of less evidence than we have today." (p. 283)

  • "After medieval cosmology was replaced by the Newtonian picture, space was understood to go on forever, leaving no location for heaven. God was said to be 'outside the universe' or 'in the heart'. Today most people have the idea that the spiritual, if it exists at all, is mysteriously other than the physical or material world and 'transcends' the physical universe. The [new cosmology] erases this not by telling us what the spiritual is but by clarifying what the physical is." (p. 285)

  • "The popular idea that the spiritual is a realm outside the universe that 'transcends' the universe is a holdover from an earlier picture of the universe. But the concept of transcendence is not meaningless — it is merely misunderstood. Transcendence is not an imaginary jump to some place 'outside' the universe. Transcendence is what happens many times within this universe, every few powers of ten." (p. 285)

  • "By the 'spiritual' we mean the relationship between a conscious mind and the cosmos. It's not the study of the cosmos — that's science. It's the way we relate to it. Things larger than about 1012 cm, or smaller than 10-2 cm, can only be known through science and only experienced spiritually. This includes most of the universe." (p. 286)

  • "Until we find our symbolic place in the universe, we will always misinterpret ourselves, feeling as though we are outside, sensing the familiar existentialist isolation, and looking at a universe in which we play no part." (p. 288)

  • "People have always personified gods with creative imagery because that's how human relating tools work; we too can do that as long as we don't fall into the trap of taking metaphors as real and assuming that in some independent spiritual realm gods are actually persons and have human characteristics. There is no independent spiritual realm. The universe is One. But if we modern humans want to experience our relationship with this newly discovered cosmos — which is the only way we will be able to discover our own fully expanded selves — we have to take those same tools evolution gave us and get creative.
       Our constraint, however, as well as our inspiration, must always be scientific knowledge. That's what guarantees that if we do experience a connection, it's to the real universe and not to some disembodied fantasy rattling around in our minds. There is nothing wrong with 'personifying' nature in an attempt to get access to our tool kit, as long as we do so knowing that nature is not a lot of persons or gods resembling persons, but that we are persons and that is the way we can exploit the power of language and metaphor to connect to the cosmos. For our kind of intelligence, metaphors are not optional, and ones that use personification are among the most effective anyone has discovered. That is why many ancient spiritual ideas still resonate — they were not arbitrary inventions but reflect discoveries bout how humans think.
     &sbsp; We need somehow recognize our ancient ancestry living in ourselves through imagery that speaks to our time and our universe. We are made of history as surely as we are made of matter." (pp. 289-90)

  • "We have an extraordinary opportunity that has arisen only twice before in the history of Western civilization — the opportunity to see everything afresh through a new cosmological lens. We are the first humans privileged to see a face of the universe no earlier culture ever imagined." (p. 297)

    Visit Primack and Abrams' website for their book:

    AUDIO - Episode 10 of the "Inspiring Naturalism Podcast Series" features astrophysicist Joel Primack and cultural historian Nancy Ellen Abrams in conversation with Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Images and metaphors for helping us understand and feel a sense of belonging with the entire cosmos are topcs of discussion, drawn from their 2006 book, View from the Center of the Universe, and their 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale University, now available as an illustrated book, The New Universe and the Human Future. (70-minute audio, posted September 2011)

    Terrific VIDEOS of Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel Primack presenting on this topic:

  • "Cosmic Consciousness in the Real Universe," Nancy Ellen Abrams
  • "Consciousness of the Cosmos," Joel R. Primack
  • "Nancy Ellen Abrams "Between the Lines" Interview with Barry Kibrick for PBS-TV
  • Nancy Ellen Abrams: "View from the Center of the Universe" personal journey (interview)
  • "Nancy Ellen Abrams: "Cosmic Society" (2009, pt 1)

  • RETURN to main page of Classic Quotes of the Epic of Evolution.

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