The sun: a meditation on survival in space

I always feel better when the sun is out. The sun's warmth on my face, even in winter, can temporarily make me forget just what I'm thinking about, grappling with or seeking a solution for. It's not just an emotional thing, either. Doctors have long told us that a Vitamin D deficit, which our bodies derive from sunlight, is bad for your health. When it comes right down to it, everything we have, are and will ever be is dependent on our sun. Our atmosphere and climate are driven by it; more than that, they exist because of its continuing output. Plants grow because of it. Human energy needs are met by it, however inefficiently. 

Our sun is a star like many others in the sky. Its near edge lies around 150 million kilometers away. Light travels this distance in 8 minutes; a space shuttle could do it in approximately 220 days while a commercial jet would take four and a half years. Pretty far away. Yet, when I was recently on a train travelling from London to Brussels, the sun's light was so much brighter than the bulbs in the train's interior lighting, despite being so much further away. To me, this realisation was awesome, if slightly pedestrian - which was clearly the opinion of the other passengers, who merely yawned in the face of my excitement.

Not only could we not do without our sun, we would be damaged by any serious change in its energy output. We are biologically hard-wired to live with just the right amounts of infrared, visible, ultraviolet light, X and gamma rays seeping into our atmosphere. The ozone layer scare of a few years ago proved that relatively small changes in the permeability of our atmosphere dramatically increase the risks of cancer and climate change. We've evolved to live within 24 hour cycles of being awake and sleeping, due to the fact that our planet rotates on its axis, limiting our daily exposure to the sun. Sure, you can limit the sun's influence on our lives and see how we do. Lock people in without daylight and they almost invariably become clinically depressed. Furthermore, our skeletons are "designed" to withstand just the amount of gravity that exists within a narrow band of altitude on our planet's surface. People who spend a few months or longer on the International Space Station - where they spend their days weightlessly - return with serious osteoporosis, or skeletal degeneration. Clearly, we are quite sensitive to changes in the environmental variables that run our planet.

It has been said that we live on a "goldilocks planet", where the fine adjustments are set just right for humans to evolve. Earth is at exactly the right distance from our sun, it has exactly the right atmospherical composition and just the right amount of internal heat. I would submit that it might also be the other way around. It's not just that we're living on a goldilocks planet - though that's true as well, but we have actually evolved to thrive just on such a planet, with the environmental factors already set. We are, then, a goldilocks species, living on a goldilocks planet. Would slight changes in our environmental variables have led to the same outcome? Would they, in other solar systems? What are the minimum viable conditions for (intelligent) life to evolve or exist?

Our sun accounts for over 99.8 per cent of all the matter in our solar system. Over one million earths could fit inside it. It seems that just as we are very small residents of a very big planet, Earth itself is just a bit of debris left over from when our sun formed - one of dozens of crumbs left on the table after someone's messy mealtime. Locked in perpetual orbit around the sun, our planet and all its creatures are held hostage by the immutable laws of physics and our own biological systems that have evolved to work with them. So, whether or not life has evolved elsewhere in the universe and whether or not we are able to invent the technology to visit those places, it may very well be that we are biologically unfit to survive on worlds that have had their goldilocks adjustments set only slightly differently from our own.

Wouldn't that be the cruelest joke of awareness? Having both the brains and the willingness to explore anything and everything, but being preempted to do so because of the limitations of our biological machines. It would be like being in a catatonic state at your 18th birthday party.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, even if it is not directly related to meditation. Do you think we can change our biological systems by better tech? Can we overcome our biological constraints in some other way? Don't agree with my slightly pessimistic assessment? Speak out in the comments.

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