It's somewhere between 900 and 1000 AD. In the high desert in northwest New Mexico, a banded hill with steep sides rises in isolation 380 feet off the floor of Chaco Canyon. There is little water at Fajada Butte, and with the climate change soon to come there will be none. The Ancient Pueblo Peoples whose ancestors settled here more than 7,000 years ago will soon move on to more hospitable land. Still, 20 or 30 families live high up on the butte, carrying water forever uphill and preserving the traditions of the time when Chaco Canyon was a commercial center and bustling community. Artists and shamans add to the petroglyphs that generations have pecked into the rock face of the butte. Some of the symbols represent humans. Some represent forces of nature or items in the night sky. At high noon at Fajada Butte the air is so arid that the reddish stone stands stark against a cloudless blue sky. At night the heavens glow gloriously.

Flash forward to June of 1977. Fascinated by rock art and Mayan astronomy, artist Anna Sofaer volunteers with Fajada Butte conservators, and climbs with the help of an experienced mountaineer almost to the top of the butte to photograph petroglyphs along a particular 1/4 mile stretch of trail. Sidling about on the southeastern-facing cliff late in the afternoon, she sees a beautiful spiral etched into the butte wall, and then sees another spiral next to it. Unfortunately, one of three large stone slabs leaning against the wall casts the spirals in shadow. She’ll have to return earlier another day to get a photo. When Sofaer comes back it is the week of the summer solstice. As the noon hour approaches and she begins snapping pictures, she notices a "dagger of sunlight" precisely bisecting one of the two spirals. Excited, she returns several times over the course of the year. Her meticulously recorded observations demonstrate that, by shining on, between, or around the spirals, daggers of light announce the solstices and equinoxes year-round.

Now jump to 2012. Enter Barry Vacker, an Associate Professor in the Department of Broadcast, Telecommunications and Mass Media at Temple University. He is fascinated by what he thinks is a tireless drive among humans to understand the cosmos in a way that inflates their importance.  In “Yearning to be the Center of Everything When We Are the Center of Nothing,” (available in an upcoming issue of Telematics and Informatics), Vacker suggests that placing themselves at “the center of everything” was the Ancient Pueblo Peoples’ purpose in creating the petroglyphs. They were ciphering cosmology, and, as the sun and moon shone directly on them and their symbols, they logically believed that their homeland was what anchored everything celestial. It sounds outrageous today, but for them the belief system may have felt entirely consistent. After all, it gave them a calendar. Year in and year out, they could predict the path the sun and possibly also the moon would take across the sky.

Galaxy

Modern humans, however, can’t rely on blithe assumptions about self-importance—or at least not on the cosmological ones the Ancient Pueblo Peoples did. By the 16th century Copernicus had spoiled that luxury by proposing a sun-centered universe, and Gallileo had providied evidence to support the claim. Then, in 1990, the Hubble Telescope was launched. Over the next 30+ years humans have peered deeply into the actual universe, and have come to understand much more about our place in it. The pictures Hubble returns to earth are extraordinarily beautiful, but they are also humbling. Compared to all that's out there, we and our Earth are not as singularly majestic as we once imagined.

And that, according to Vacker, brings us to Facebook. Humility is so intolerable to humans that we use Mark Zuckerberg's social network to create individual cosmologies. We ePlace ourselves at the center of our own universes. We have community of of FB “friends,” and we etch petroglyphs (a/k/a post images, status updates, and game results) on cliff walls (or, in FB parlance, plain old “walls”). Vacker calls posting on Facebook a "celebration of narcissism," but he acknowledges such narcissism not as disordered thinking or feeling but as an inescapable part of the human condition. At last having incontrovertible proof that we and our Earth are not the center of everything, we have begun again to pretend that it is, and that we are. 

About the Author

Rebecca Coffey

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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