Dean M. Chriss

Photography, Physics, Life, and Stardust
Making Peace with the Future
August 10, 2019

Pillars of Creation
Pillars of Creation, Eagle Nebula, M16, Visible Light
NASA and ESA - Hubble Space Telescope

My earliest memories are of nature in the woodlands around my childhood home. When I was 11 years old I accidentally discovered photography and began taking pictures there. As my horizons expanded the magnificence of the natural world became a major focus of my life. I always felt connected to the wondrous and diverse landscapes and the beings that inhabit them all. I feel like these places and creatures are all part of a huge extended family and I have great respect for them. I thought everyone felt like that until I got older.

The connection between everything in the universe, including us, began about 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang created vast quantities of hydrogen and helium, the simplest, lightest, and still the most abundant elements in the universe. This matter, expanding outward at nearly the speed of light, was all that existed. Perturbations or "ripples" left from the big bang created localized volumes with higher densities of these primordial elements. They collapsed under their own gravity, eventually becoming so dense and hot that hydrogen began to fuse, creating the first stars. That nuclear fusion within stars produces increasingly heavier elements as the stars age, including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, and about 94 others. When stars deplete their fuel they violently eject massive quantities of these elements into space. There the "stardust" can coalesce under its own gravity to form planets, including some like Earth. The atoms that make everything, from our bones, blood and flesh to the earth's mountains and canyons, were formed in the nuclear furnaces of stars long before Earth existed. Learning that as a young adult studying physics was a revelation that validated how I always felt about the world around me.

Stars and planets are constantly created. Statistically we know there are countless habitable planets and some of them undoubtedly contain life. The closest star system with a good chance (about 75%) of containing another habitable planet is Alpha Centauri, and it is "only" 4.4 light years from earth. That means it would take 4.4 years to get there traveling at the speed of light, which is a theoretical impossibility proven by Einstein. The fastest spacecraft ever built would take about 18,000 years to get there. That means we are stranded on a very pretty clump of stardust along with all of the other life forms that have evolved beside us, or at least those we have not already driven to extinction. That's not so bad, but we have created an enormous downside.

Massive destruction by people of the complex systems that support all life on Earth has consequences. We seem incapable of considering them until they become painfully obvious. Even then, many who are brainwashed by politics deny reality while others say fixing the issues is too expensive. That approach makes the future of life as we know it on Earth problematic and short. In about 80 years our descendants will be forced to deal with existential threats that we have known about for decades but chose to ignore. Climate change driven by overpopulation will begin causing food shortages simultaneously on multiple continents, along with massive and chaotic migrations of people fleeing places where food can no longer be grown.

As you read this, arctic permafrost is starting to melt, releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Ancient methane hydrates frozen by the immense pressure and low temperature at the bottom of the world's warming oceans are also starting to melt. Oceanic microbes biodegrade most of the released methane when it slowly bubbles to the surface, but that may not be so with large explosive releases. Triggered by human caused global warming, these phenomena and others create a positive feedback loop of greenhouse gas release and warming that will drastically reduce the number of living things on Earth. This cycle has already started and the time during which human action could possibly affect it is very short. To succeed such human action must be global and involve an enormous coordinated effort by every nation. That will never happen because it is difficult and expensive, and we are too busy gobbling up natural resources and turning them into money. Given our pathetic inaction, by the time our grandchildren's children are adults they will fight a losing battle for survival. The Earth's human population will then be 2 billion more than the planet can support even without global warming. A fight against these natural forces of planetary scope and magnitude cannot be won in chaos by 11 billion starving people. Of course the earth's wildlife will precede us to extinction and the most resourceful humans will be the last to go.

The Earth will ultimately cleanse itself of all or most life and begin again without our descendants. Given how we have handled things it can't hurt to have different DNA take the lead. New and perhaps smarter forms of life evolving on a renewed Earth might avoid a similar fate. They need only live in ways that do not destroy natural systems that support life. There may already be forms of life on other planets that have figured this out and have acted on their knowledge. That would greatly extend the longevity of a civilization, allowing them to gain more knowledge and advance further. Perhaps they have even found a way for their kind to live in space and, over thousands of years and many generations, migrate to other worlds.

Everything is temporary, including planets, stars, and galaxies. Compared to their billions of years long lifetimes, people and human civilization are hardly a fleeting moment. I will certainly not be around to see what happens, today's children won't be as lucky. While I am around I will enjoy and photograph some remaining bits of the natural world as I am able. Photography is how I see things, so doing it is personally important. The fate of my photographs is not. At best, after I am gone they might give someone a glimpse of a world they were never able to know.