— by Jennifer Morgan
The stars are our ancestors! That’s the main message of my picture book trilogy for children, and now also the newly-released movie Journey of the Universe, which aired on PBS stations nationwide in December. The movie is a documentary exploring the human connection to Earth and the cosmos, produced by Yale historian of religions Mary Evelyn Tucker and narrated by the mathematical cosmologist and story teller extraordinaire Brian Swimme.
Together, the movie and the picture books offer a wonderful parallel message. The movie does for adults what the Universe trilogy does for children—and the child in all of us. It evokes a sense of profound wonder for our universe and the energy that poured forth over billions of years to create the universe we know today.
In the movie Dr. Swimme walks through an open air market on the Mediterranean Island of Samos, colorful vegetables are piled high on every table. He picks up a beet. “Every carbon atom in this beet was fused inside a star.” Soon we see a colorful meal of vegetables from the market sliding into an outdoor oven . . . the carbon atoms about to become part of the humans who eat them. “Journey of the Universe” is about seeing everything anew, “ablaze with cosmic creativity,” inside the spectacular 13.7 billion-year story of the universe.
In the story for children, I used the storytelling technique of becoming the universe itself and telling “my” story, my “autobiography.” Illustrator Dana Andersen powerfully and evocatively brings the story to life (see Artist of the Month). As told in Born with a Bang: The Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story: “Like you, I started as a tiny speck. About 13 billion years ago, or so, I was smaller than a piece of dust under your bed. It’s hard to imagine that I started out so small. But I did. . . . Like you, I couldn’t stay small. I was bursting with wild and dazzling dreams . . .” My life as a universe, I explained, was one of both chaos and creativity. Time after time I nearly perished, but somehow I turned disaster into opportunity and created even more interesting, complex forms.
Born with a Bang ends with the formation of the Earth, “a burning red ball of molten stardust.” The second book, From Lava to Life: The Universe Tells Our Earth Story picks up my experience of how hot oceans and naked earth became the home of bacteria . . . jellyfish . . . flowers . . . dinosaurs! The second book ends when a huge meteor smacks into Earth and every single dinosaur sinks into extinction. Mammals Who Morph: The Universe Tells Our Evolution Story takes the tale from there with the amazing story of mammals.
Dr. Swimme tells the story through amazing photography. “What gave birth to all this beauty?” he asks. “What was the creativity that brought this about?” Charged with wonder, he challenges us to open our eyes and see unbroken ancestral relationships through deep time—all the way back to the very beginning—and to see the self-organizing capacity of the universe that gave birth to . . . us.
Life was not an accident, Swimme asserts. It naturally came forth out of the patterning within matter—a “life-generating universe.” It was bound to happen, he says. He quotes the famous quantum physicist Freeman Dyson who said, “The more I study the universe, the more I see that the universe must have known we were coming.”
With amazing images, Swimme explains how energy poured forth, swirled, and transformed into more complex forms with deepening interiority, or awareness. When life emerged, a huge leap in complexity and subjectivity took place. Life could now make the distinction between “self” and “other” . . . and could learn, adapt, and make decisions. Swimme emphasizes that everything has its roots in what came before—and that awareness is no exception. He traces the lineage of awareness back to the self-organizing capacity of the universe itself.
And in what mysterious and amazing ways the universe organized itself! For example, life can only exist within a narrow temperature band. Over the last 4 billion years since life began on earth, the sun’s temperature has increased by 25%, but earth found a way to lower its temperature, thus keeping a climate conducive to life. How? By taking carbon out of the atmosphere. “Is all of this being organized so life can flourish?” Swimme asks.
Another example: earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen—very unusual for planets. Why? Because life itself has been pouring oxygen into the atmosphere. Earth and life are inextricably entwined. Earth is not merely a platform on which life happens. There’s an intimate partnership between life and the ocean, land, and atmosphere.
The trend toward increasing awareness occurred simultaneously in many different kinds of life. One of the most remarkable examples is the evolution of the eye, which happened independently many times over. Trilobites first developed a calcite eye. The human water-based eye evolved on a completely different track.
As humans evolved, symbolic consciousness emerged . . . and set in motion self-amplifying loops that further increased consciousness. Humans have gained such a high degree of self-determination, or “centration,” to use Swimme’s term, that human consciousness is now shaping the earth . . . in many ways irreversibly, changing life’s dynamics and the quality of the air, climate, rivers, oceans, and DNA.
What is the way forward with the crises we face today? In Mammals Who Morph, at the end of my trilogy, I evoked a sense of wonder in my young audience. “Crises can unleash my cosmic creative powers. Today, my creative powers also live inside of you. You may not know where you’re headed. But you’re part of something much bigger than humans and that’s why you too have exactly the powers you need—the powers of imagination, love and decision making. . . . Our adventure has only just begun.”
Likewise in the movie, Swimme says that the compass to guide us is our sense of “wonder” that will inspire a wholehearted, conscious partnership of humans with the earth. That sense of wonder has a firm foundation in understanding where we come from and the incredible creative powers of the universe that we’re part of. By following “wonder” we align ourselves with the “grain of cosmic evolution” and see our place in the journey of the universe. It’s a journey in which we belong, have always belonged, and in which we have a special role to play right now.
Science has given us a deep-time story of a self-organizing universe so remarkable that it demands our contemplation. As I have seen time and time again, children are eager for this story. It is being used is used in classrooms around the world. Our origin story, in all its depth, complexity, and wonder, is a great gift to the next generation.
Ms. Morgan’s Universe Story Trilogy was endorsed by Brian Swimme, as well as such luminaries as Thomas Berry, Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Neil de Grasse Tyson (Director, Rose Center, Hayden Planetarium, AMNH), and numerous others. For over ten years she has been giving programs and storytellings for teachers, students ranging from elementary to college age, and religious groups, and leading retreats in the New Cosmology. Ms. Morgan has a B.A. degree in theology, University of San Francisco, and an M.B.A., Rutgers University. For more information go to www.universestories.com.