Could We Just be Bacteria Flying Through Space on a Mote of Dust?

It had been on my mind for several weeks but it finally crystallized up in the mountainous countryside outside Busan. When my friend and I started our ascent it was a humid day in late July filled the foul breath and piercing shouts of automobiles. You could see the heat and fumes dancing over the asphalt but as the road doubled back on itself and took us higher and away from the city we found ourselves quickly under the cool protective shade of whispering conifers.  The din of horns was replaced by the tap tap tap of our 125cc engines and the droning wah wah wah of cicadas.  The noxious breath of the highway gave way to the scents of pine, wet rock, and moss. Our descent was just the opposite and as I was abruptly smacked in the face  by a  fowl fecal matter scented wind blowing out of the treeless morass of concrete and asphalt  that stretched  out as far as the eye could see I thought, “People are really nuts, look at this seething mass of insanity; concrete, asphalt, steel, glass, people living in boxes  pooping in holes stacked on top of other people pooping in holes, worried that their box didn’t cost enough, people owning 20 boxes while some can’t afford one box.  The dark thoughts gathered and circled like vultures.

I heard Joe Rogan’s voice in my head “We’re Bacteria! Did you ever fly over LA, you see these beautiful green hills and shit and then you see LA. If you looked at the earth like a living organism you’d say ‘Hey that’s cancer! There’s some weird stuff growing there and it has smoke coming out of it and its getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Well why is it getting bigger? Because that’s our purpose just like mold takes over a sandwich or yeast makes bread rise. We’re just a very complicated form of bacteria and all our thoughts on ourselves it’s all just biological tricks to keep your ego alive to keep your biology alive, to make sure you keep perpetuating this thing. Descending from the mountains into a city of four million it didn’t seem like Joe Rogan was far off.

Later on that week I came across this picture and the idea just stuck in my head; the possibility that we’re just bacteria flying through space on a mote of dust. 

Look again at that dot.  That's here.  That's home.  That's us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

--Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)  

It’s often fun and refreshing to take on a new world view that you might not necessarily agree with and test it out for a week or two to see how things look through a different lens, to see how you look through a different lens . The bacteria on a mote of dust lens is amusing once you get over the initial let down that you may be on a mote of dust AND nothing more than bacteria. I was sitting on the bus feeling terrible about a long day of teaching and writing up senseless reports when I popped in the lens. I pictured a piece of dust, then a pissed off bacteria on bacteria public transportation grumbling about its day and I felt absurd for feeling annoyed.  It’s a nice exercise in killing the ego. “Why don’t people build smarter cities?” “Why do we keep polluting the earth?” “Why are we still burning fossil fuels?” “Why are people so greedy?” Could it be because we’re just bacteria on a mote of dust not the intelligent/special creatures we imagine ourselves to be? Who can really be sure? But it is a fun lens to pop in and toy with.

Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, will be published in June 2013.

Bacteria image courtesy of Shutterstock

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