The last time I cried, I was in the Hayden Planetarium watching the universe expand on screen – webs of matter and dark matter stretching out across space and time to the soothing, narrative tones of Neil deGrasse Tyson.
I was fresh out of an intensive weekend of what I thought were bad interviews at a graduate school that I desperately wanted to go to, and I was stressed out from scurrying around the country, missing the majority of my classes, and attempting to figure out where the heck I'd be spending the next five to seven years of my life trying my very best to convince someone to give me a Ph.D.
I leaned back and looked up at the projected expanses of the galaxies above me, and I was moved to tears – not by the prospect of failing to make my graduate school's final cut, but by the overwhelming beauty of the universe we live in and the very welcome reminder that neither I nor my troubles really mattered at all.
Such is the value of a cosmic perspective.
This is the perspective that Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and FOX are hoping to bring to our television screens with their reboot of Carl Sagan's 1980s classic, "Cosmos," which premiered this past Sunday night to mostly rave reviews.
It's a perspective that is both humbling and empowering – an acknowledgement that we, ourselves, are very, very small, but that we are also part of something immeasurably – maybe even infinitely – greater.
As Tyson states often, in some variation or another, in many of his interviews, "You can't come away with this cosmic perspective thinking that you are better than others and want to fight. ... You'll never have astrophysicists leading nations into war."
You can't come away with it thinking we are invincible as a human race, either.
At one point in the episode, Tyson constructed a "cosmic calendar" – compressing all of time into one calendar year, with the Big Bang starting off Jan. 1, and right now, today comprising the very last instance of Dec. 31. Life, he explains, didn't start until September, and humans didn't arise until Dec. 31, with all of modern civilization making up just the last 14 seconds of the calendar year.
From this view, changes on the earth like global warming don't just seem possible; they seem probable, and we are struck by the sudden realization that our 14 seconds eventually turning into 15 – well, that's not a guarantee. This, too, is cosmic perspective – that we are not just small; we, humankind, may very well also be fleeting.
It's not a particularly encouraging thought, but as we defund our science agencies, amp up our military and rail against the existence of climate change, it's probably a thought we should keep in mind.
If we look a little harder at everything that's happened on this cosmic calendar, though, a whole 14 seconds starts to look a little bit like a victory. It is yet another dose of cosmic perspective that we, through some lucky coincidence, have found ourselves a part of those 14 seconds. That through all of the improbabilities of just coming into existence, we, as modern humans, have not just existed, we have subsisted – and not just for 1 or 2 seconds, but an entire 14.
So, in the midst of one of those privileged milliseconds of individual existence, stop and look up at the stars.
You might just find yourself gaining a little bit of perspective.
Melissa Lee is a senior in neuroscience. She can be reached at email@example.com.