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Finding meaning in the cosmos

Joel Primack: Why does the universe matter? Or our understanding of the universe matter to us, as people? I think a lot of people really want to know the real story. Where did we come from? Why is the universe the way it is?

During the last decade, remarkable series of new telescopes became available. The results are in fantastic agreement with the predictions of the theory that my colleagues and I helped to develop, which is cold dark matter with a cosmological constant or dark energy. The vast majority of the mass in the universe is completely invisible. It's not made of atoms, in fact it's not even made of the things that atoms are made of, protons, neutrons and electrons. It's something completely different. And so, for the first time in the history of astronomy, we actually have a theory of the whole universe that seems to work.

Nancy Ellen Abrams: My background is in science policy and the meaning of science for the larger culture. That's what I do. As I watched Joel and his colleagues basically discovering the universe, I kept asking myself "well, what does this mean for the rest of us?" We're not living in the universe we thought we were living in. This has got to have some implications. What are they?

Joel Primack: Are we just insignificant motes in no particular place in the universe, or is there some grand design. The answer is, now that we're beginning to understand how it all works, that there is clearly a grand design and in many respects, we're not insignificant motes at all. It's turning out that our planetary system, or solar system, is truly extraordinary in many, many ways. We've now discovered over a thousand planetary systems outside our own and we're discovering them very rapidly. But we've never seen anything like ours.

Nancy Ellen Abrams: The human species is not only central to the cosmos, but the human species today is central to the future of Earth. Those of us who are alive today at this real turning point for our culture, where we really have to stop this enormous rate of growth and get into a sustainable way of living. Those of us who are alive today could be the most important generation of humans ever because we are going to have to manage this transition. That gives us a place in time and space that's really astonishingly important and unifies everybody around the Earth. So, that's where I think cosmology could play a huge role in really changing our identity and possibly helping us to change the dangerous trends on Earth.