Thomas Moynihan in Science:
It is 1919, and a young astronomer turns a street corner in Pasadena, California. Something seemingly humdrum on the ground distracts him. It’s an ant heap. Dropping to his knees, peering closer, he has an epiphany – about deep time, our place within it, and humanity’s uncertain fate. The astronomer was Harlow Shapley. He worked nearby at Mount Wilson Observatory: peering into space. With help from colleagues like Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Shapley went on to “measure” the Milky Way. Their work revealed that we don’t live at our galaxy’s centre, and that there are many other galaxies besides.
A lifelong advocate of progressive causes, Shapley also reflected regularly upon humanity’s long-term future, alongside the risks jeopardising it. He was among the first to suggest, during a lecture given while World War Two raged, that humanity should learn the lesson from 1918’s pandemic and prepare properly for the next one. Instead of battling each other, he prescribed a “design for fighting” the risks facing all of humanity: declaring war on the gamut of evils, from pandemics to poverty, endangering the whole globe. (Only two audience members applauded; it appears we didn’t take heed.)