Tiny humans, big universe: How to balance anxiety and wonder in astrophysics | Michelle Thaller


One of the big challenges
of my life has been to kind of breakdown this barrier as scientists being somehow The Other. You know, “Being a scientist isn’t really
a normal way to be a human being.” And somehow there are all these judgments
about—that “you must be very logical” or “you must be very smart,” whatever
that means. And no one ever seems to really understand
that when you learn where the atoms in your body came from, you know, when you learn the
scale of the universe, when you learn the stories that you’re involved in, there has
to be some emotional response to that, you know? That just doesn’t roll off you and never
affect you. And I don’t really have a great way to deal
with everything that I’ve learned being an astrophysicist, you know. If I ever give people the impression that
all this is “just okay” with me, that’s entirely wrong. There are days when, you know, I understand
that I am a collection of atoms that came from the hearts of stars, that briefly comes
together and forms planets and people and everything that’s in our world. And then, you know, I was observing one night
at Mount Palomar, where we were observing supernovae. And supernovae are the explosions of an entire
solar system. A whole solar system is destroyed. A star and all of its planets. And our telescopes are so good now that at
a typical night at Mount Palomar you see about 20 of those a night. You know, you see 20 entire solar systems
ripped apart—every night! So we’re here very briefly, you know. We’re little collections of atoms that come
together and scatter and then form other things and, you know, travel on through the universe. And sometimes that’s incredibly inspiring,
and sometimes you think about the story that you’re a part of. The water in my body has hydrogen from the
Big Bang, from the very start of the universe. Then the oxygen came from stars that had to
die, you know? You hold your arms around yourself and you
have a story that’s billions of years and trillions of miles across, just in your own
self. And then you think about how brief we are
and how, you know, we are this little collection that comes together and disperses. And sometimes I hide under the bed and it’s
given me anxiety attacks, and you cling to the people that you love and you have sex
with all the wrong people, and you try to find some way to just kind of work out this
energy that you don’t know what to do with. So there’s a balance between nihilism and
inspiration, and I have to say that while that balance is sometimes painful because
you’re a human being and you don’t know how to deal with this scale of things. It is an absolutely wonderful place to walk. That balance between being part of everything,
and being so brief, or almost nothing. And you have to hold those two things in your
hands at the same time. And everybody you meet and everything you
do in life—and when you’re out grocery shopping and when you’re driving on the
highway—these thoughts just don’t really ever leave. So it’s not the easiest place to be. There’s no great answer there. There’s no great comfort. But the inspiring part is you’re part of
a story that is mind-blowingly dramatic and beautiful, even if you’re a brief part. And so to me the balance tips towards inspiration. Some days it’s more towards the nihilism,
but you take that little bit of truth and you wrap it up and you carry it with you. It never really leaves.

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Comments

  1. What I got out of this is that when you experience existential angst, try to avoid having “sex with all the wrong people.” 🤔

  2. The very thought of being able to think about the universe as something that we are a part of and being able to understand or to feel the insignificance of our being while also being aware that we are able to understand the whole idea. For me this surpasses everything that fits in the reality of our world. I am Dutch, so forgive me if i’m not clear how i express this. I’ve wondered all my life if there would be a chance that in this (the one that we’re supposed to be in) universe there could be another civilisation, since i think we are here by ‘chance’. I’m quite convinced that we’re not designed or created from nothing. I understand that actually nobody really knows how we, if there’s only we as we know, came to existence. This wondering that scientists call theory is what i experience in daily life. It also makes me aware that this finite reality that we are in needs some serious taking care of because all the signs say that we are quite isolated in our (Is it 30 or is it a 60 lightyear radius?) spherical vacuum. And we can clearly see that our “endtime” is quite nigh (biblical term, but i am an atheïst). Which makes me realise that our job is now and here and we’ll have to let the universe wait a while. There is time enough there.

  3. Thinking is the problem. Just exist and "be" as everything else in the universe from the tiny microbes to the galaxies. Thinking won't solve anything, it just makes your time here miserable.

  4. This is precisely what happened to me a few days ago when I was tripping on magic mushrooms, the concept came to my mind that everything we know about our existence, about our galaxy and everything we have experienced in our planet for generations and generations isn’t even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the spectrum of the universe. I had never felt so insignificant before. This wasn’t a depressive thought, just a massive revelation. We humans have taught ourselves to be very anthropocentric, whilst in reality it is not so.

  5. Somebody get this scientist to a shrink. It seems to affect her too much. Perhaps astronomy is too far removed from our basic human needs.

  6. Big Think… I gotta say, i dont like the graphic thumbnails you guys have now, i never know who the guest is and can only kinda figure out what the video is even about… IDK are yall getting more views this way, i find myself uninterested in clicking cause the shit looks like spam or something

  7. That thubnail question is probably one of the least likely ones that would have come from my mind, how can adventure be depessing ?

  8. I am completely nihilistic, and have no problems with it. I grew up a very inquisitive child, so I asked around and read a lot about the natural sciences. Naturally, this lead to studies on the universe. Because I started to have these counter-intuitive discussions so young, they kind of just roll off me now. Sure, the subject is incredible, but it has a lot less impact.

  9. I love videos like this. I came to terms with the scale of the Universe when I was about 11. In my bedroom one of the walls was blank and white. I saw a black dot, then another, and another, and then so many I felt as if the universe was flooding in my head. I saw black planets, black suns, black comets, all flooding into my eyes and brain. I felt swallowed by the sheer enormity of swirling black galaxies, and emptiness. My heart was beating furiously, my head swam, My sheet were covered in sweat, yet I could not stop looking at the wall of black stars.
    Then everything inverted, and I felt my part in the enormity. The universe wasn't apart from me, I was a PART of it. I was a member of everything that has ever existed or will exist.
    That made me feel good. All of this occurred in maybe 2 minutes. My love for the vastness of nothing yet everything has only grown as new discoveries are made.

  10. Watching these videos sort of open my eyes and really get bored of petty gossip between human beings. People are raised in cultures where they don’t question things and just go with the flow.

  11. What depresses me is the fact that a lot of people think that science is depressing or worse boring, and without emotion. That is a constructions of society to help feel better the ones that do not perform some point. Is like (we), the not so rich, think that even if someone is rich, beautiful and lucky they MUST be unhappy somehow, they MUST. Well reality check, being rich apparently is the best thing and yes most of them are smart and happy too. In the same time scientists even if they do not communicate information/emotions that are "trendy or accessible to the majority" they experience the same range of emotions like the others, and probably more. Knowledge generates emotions( this might be news for some).

  12. I majored in Astrophysics and knowing how difficult it is to make life the way that we know it makes me appreciate life all the more.

    I was always an environmentalist from the age of 9 and I was even more charged to be environmental after finding out how amazing Earth is.

    The vastness of the Universe isn’t what makes me feel nihilistic. It’s the willful ignorance and outright corruption of the human species that makes me sad about things. The Earth will continue on with or without us on the planet. It’s just really sad that we don’t take care of the Earth to be habitable for us knowing how difficult it is to sustain life.

    Thus, I try my best to be a mindful human being to try and preserve the planet for humans to enjoy living on it. To be good to others, to live by example for my friends and family.

    Thank you Universe for this amazingly crazy ride called life on Earth. Hopefully, we don’t fuck it up too much.

  13. All I want to know is what I'm doing here, and why this sickly universe made me come into existence and suffer till I die, but I will never get any answer and will disappear like all this billion humans before me.

  14. Michelle, lovely, as always.
    If i am the product of the death of hounded of thousands of starts, if not millions I should probably make myself the best that i can be. Maybe one day, if the universe looks back on me, she'll say, i was worth it.

  15. If humans would really understand and sense what they are part of and how unique this situation is, then they would not so much depend on material things and would not have ruined our planet to the degree it is now ruined. Planet Earth, all life on it, the universe, humans as beings with selfawareness; it all commands a sense of awe. But in stead of being in awe for it, we care about what our neighbours think of our car, we are adicted to FB likes, we stuff our faces with unhealthy food, we need te have the lastest phone or again new clothes, we treat animals like garbage, we judge people by the colour of their skin. It's like Hawking said: our stupidity will ruin the only thing we really depend on and we will never realize how beautifull it was.

  16. I find it inspiring. Yes, the universe is an infinitely vast vortex of darkness, but at the end of the day, we still live our lives.

  17. I really like this astrophysicist – she did a great big think vid here, one of my fave personalities and communicators on this channel at the mo

  18. Hilarious, the ad preceding this video was for a product that claims to lower stress.

    In answer to the question posed in the title of this video, no, the size of the universe has never depressed, me it fascinates me. So I'm sorry I didn't watch your video.

  19. Hi Michelle,
    According to Einstein's theory of relativity
    How do our atomic clocks understand different time and different gravity?

  20. She is not skinny. She is not young. She has wrinkles. And even her hair is weird…But she is one of the most beautiful human beings on the planet.
    I would rather spend an afternoon talking with her than a night with a Supermodel.

  21. Earth is in a solar system which is in a galaxy which in a sector which is in a quadrant which is in a universe which is in a multiverse. WHAT IS THE SPACE CALLED SURROUNDING THE MULTIVERSE?

  22. I’ve watched quite a few of these videos. All more wonderful than the previous one. This one id by far the best. Thank you Michelle !

  23. For me personally, the idea of optimistic nihilism really gave a lot comfort. The idea which says we, humans, are the thinking and moving parts of this universe as we know. Ever since I watched that video of Kurzgesagt – Optimistic Nihilism, I've been a lot better at dealing with anxiety related to cosmos. Highly recommend watching that video

  24. What is so lovely about Dr. Thaller, is that she is such a down to earth and humanistic person. So easy to like you!

  25. I'm so glad she discussed this because I've always felt the same way, just never can find the words to describe to what depth though.

  26. The simple existence of someone as amazing as Michelle Thaller is the ultimate proof against nihilism.

  27. I wish I could tell her in person
    “ I get what you are trying to say “
    Then give her an emotional hug .

  28. Wow! She made me feel as large as the universe, yet as small as an atom. And, after my existance, my substance will still exist as part of creation, until the end of time.

    I hope the same is not true for the IRS. They need to go away now. RIGHT NOW!

  29. Tiny humans travel faster than light….what do you think they found in Roswell NM. Watch movie Contact, at least it has a little more meaning.

  30. Most people have travelled little and experienced only a small fraction of the Earth.
    And one of the most travelled was a blind Englishman.
    It's not the quantity it's the richness of our lives beginning and ending with the love of and for our family and friends.

  31. Michelle… if you ever need a hug, come back to us. We owe you heaps and gobs.
    Or, we can connect at a Renassaince fair and dance it out.

  32. I'm a technician, not a scientist, but so were all the pioneers of "Science" technicians. However, I'm no "Pioneer," either, but I do like to think about theory, models of theory, and the predictions based on the model which are confirmed by observation and experiment. Doing so, I've become as disappointed in the science of Cosmology, and just as I have become disappointed in "Religion" as a belief system. As a member of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) I became aware of Plasma Physics, and the Universe opened up to how the it works … the physics involved is enlightening in an "Eureka" way of understanding. If you are interested in "Science" then Plasma Physics is the future of it; Astrophysics, Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology, et al, will benefit from the knowledge and technology which it will bring. https://www.ieee.org/

  33. Brilliantly stated…Thanks for your honesty and making many of us feel a bit less alone in those moments of existential crisis.

  34. Was Michelle the real life character /inspiration for the dr Ellie in Contact?
    20 a night , could we be next unexpectedly
    Being a scientist she sounds so spiritual/ connected with humanity or human condition , I asked Michio Kaku a question , he couldn’t answer it, never meet your hero’s in real life , just get let down , he wasn’t what I expected, seem for Neil de g

  35. Possibly the most moving few moments I have ever been privileged to experience. I have always enjoyed Michelle Thaller’s comments on various science programs, but here I sense the mingled awe and unease which are so familiar to me. Physics rendered “religion” powerless to comfort me but the overwhelming wonder at the enormity of the infinitely small and the infinitely large brought a spirituality which terrifies and awes at the same time. Thank you, Michelle Thaller for confirming these feelings so beautifully and honestly.

  36. Man it's been a bit more than a week since I started watching her videos and this one just made me feel like giving her a long warm hug. I love her!!!

  37. How very special are we,
    For just a moment to be,
    Part of life’s,
    Eternal rhyme…
    How very special are we,
    To have on our family tree,
    Mother Earth,
    And Father Time.
    – Charlotte

  38. Thank you for your candor in discussing this. I have a theory as to why scientists are sometimes viewed as "other", though it may be silly: It's all Star Treks' fault! In the show, Mr. Spock is the ships' science officer. Since he is of an alien race which has set aside emotion in deference to logic, I think this has popularized the notion of scientists in general as being more logical and less emotional. That said, the dichotomy which you address actually goes together in my head. The vastness of the universe and the processes that have created all we know, fill me with awe and wonder at how we came to be here at this particular place and time. Simultaneously, the exceedingly brief time we are here makes this much more special. Everything is much more vibrant and sweet because of it. You will never be more beautiful than you are at this moment. We will never pass this way again. Cheesy quote, yes, but true (at least to me) nonetheless. I know this vid is almost a year old, but I wish for you a great day anyway.

  39. The most honest and real you have been. Brave and beautifully conveyed… Annd "Ditto", to almost all.
    Keep up the great channel 😉

  40. I feel'ya. It's definitely a morale crusher when you start to understand how the body functions and how nature works. Every living species are basically made of the same properties. Most of us grew up thinking that almighty God created us and it must look just like us. So I can understand the feeling of what most people go through who push themselves to new boundaries. We have to face reality sooner or later or you're going to fall behind simple as that.

  41. That is a brilliantly vocalized idea right there. Yeah, nobody frankly knows the best way to deal with the energy every person is provided with. I’d say focusing on steps and actions towards the better future for everyone is the best possible way to spend the given energy

  42. Very well put the mystery of this life is sad and wonderful all at the same time we are here momentarily but what a great gift it is you would think we could all come together and love one another in our life’s but seems that is not so .

  43. Astrophysics is one of the few if not the only field that someone finds out how small and insignificant he is and at the same time how unique and rare.

  44. 💛💚🧡💙 Nobody and I mean nobody on this god damn earth can explain the universe like Michelle Thaller 💛💚🧡💙

  45. You know what gives me anxiety, just thinking about the fact that we all live on a Giant Rock floating in space, also I have anxiety about what if the sun burns out tomorrow and we just all die because of it. 😬

  46. I honestly really do get sad sometimes about all this. Like she said, we're just collected material that will one day disperse into the universe. As of right now we don't know if we're are actually alone in the cosmos. We are the most intellectual species to ever walk this earth. Our only home. Yet we have countries that are suffering day to day. Unforgiving wars and Worst of all, we are destroying our own planet. All for greed. We're so self focused that we forget about the big picture. We don't think about the future. We don't think of our species as a whole. we have boundaries that divide us and Religions that confuse/heal us.
    If there were any advanced alien civilization out there I doubt they would even bother with us.

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