The Sun is the hottest thing the Earth has ever seen.
First thing every morning, the Earth wakes up and is wowed by that heavenly body. Afternoons it spends gazing dreamily at the Sun’s perfect complexion, its curvaceous figure. It daydreams about the way the Sun can light up a room.
The Earth spins and swaggers, trying frantically to capture the Sun’s attention. It stirs up ferocious weather patterns on its marble-like surface; it shows off its sparkling seas; it flaunts its marvelous mountain ranges.
With every passing moment, the Earth falls for the Sun anew: plunging through space, it is constantly tripping over itself in a desperate attempt to get just a little closer to that captivating personality.
Sadly, though, it ends each day no closer than when it began. Some meddling force conspires to keep the Sun always just out of reach. No matter how hard the Earth tries, the Sun never really pays much attention.
This journey is a torturous one: never consummated, never requited, filled with frustrated desire and thwarted intentions.
What the Earth doesn’t realize, of course, is that the Sun is distracted by an even more magnetic presence: the mysterious, dark, handsome, supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
And so the universe, this crazy mess of white dwarves and nebulae, is held together by a force not entirely unfamiliar to us tiny humans gazing up at it from down below.
Three centuries ago, Isaac Newton realized something that makes absolutely no sense: the same force that keeps the moon locked in orbit is what pulls an apple to the ground.
It was an idea that changed everything.
In the next three hundred years, if we're lucky enough to survive them, what equally revolutionary discoveries will occur? What insane ideas will be deemed common sense? What will be seen as totally idiotic that we now take for granted?
In the year 2315, what will we teach our second graders?
Like peering down at 5th Avenue from the Empire State Building, a perspective this broad can really change the look of things. All those laws—the ones that tell us what’s real and what’s not, what’s allowed and what’s not—which until just recently seemed as permanent as those big, stainless steel street signs drilled into the concrete on the road to truth, suddenly look like flimsy billboards, ready to be torn down and replaced at will.
Suddenly, anything becomes possible. We recapture our childlike optimism—our wide-eyed curiosity.
Is the Earth in love with the Sun? Of course not. Everybody knows that floating pieces of rock can’t love. Love is special to humans. We’re the only ones who get it.
Or so goes the received wisdom.
But suppose for a moment that it were. What would that look like? Could we ask it? Would we see the Earth standing in line at the flower store on Valentine’s Day? Would we hear it shouting from rooftops, telling all its friends?
No; if the Earth were in love with the Sun, it might very well be doing exactly what it’s doing now: spending all its time just trying to get a little closer to that gorgeous hunk of hydrogen, warming itself in that white-hot light.
All too often, us scientists get wrapped up in the details of the current moment. We're are afraid to take wider perspective, to challenge the current orthodoxy. Such a challenge—the notion that one might overturn centuries of accumulated wisdom—can feel like hubris.
But the truth is quite the opposite. Questioning current theories requires a deep humility. It demands recognition of the ephemerality of the human species, about the limits to human knowledge, and about the opportunity for growth.
This kind of humility is thrilling. And it’s filled with possibility.