One Strange Rock is a documentary series that aired on National Geographic in the spring of 2018. Hosted by Will Smith and directed/produced by Darren Aronofsky, the show features interviews with eight astronauts, a rare group of humans who have ever seen Earth from off of Earth. With their unique perspective, they can better understand the planet and our place in the universe.
As well as fascinating information, One Strange Rock also includes spectacular visuals: footage of Earth from above (outer space) and below (the strangest far reaches of the planet). It’s a show that every human on Earth should watch to better understand themselves and the planet we all share. It’s certainly a better viewing option than the daily news cycle. Whereas the news aims to invoke fear and outrage and divide people against each other, One Strange Rock is educational and inspiring and aims to bring us all together.
Below are some of my thoughts and key takeaways from each of the ten episodes.
Episode 1: Gasp
Earth is special and habitable to life because of its oxygen-rich atmosphere. But oxygen doesn’t just naturally exist in the atmosphere on its own. Trees convert carbon dioxide in the air into oxygen. Rainforests, especially the Amazon, are what makes the air on the rest of the planet breathable. By destroying the rainforests we are slowly suffocating ourselves.
Episode 2: Storm
An asteroid hitting earth in the past allowed humans to come into existence. It caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, allowing mammals to survive, evolving into larger mammals, eventually apes, and ultimately humans. Asteroid collisions have happened before (many times) and it can easily happen again—statistically it almost certainly will. An asteroid in the future may cause humans to go into extinction…unless we develop the technology to detect and deflect it (and/or colonize other planets).
Episode 3: Shield
The sun is extremely powerful—and deadly. The only reason the sun doesn’t burn all life on Earth to a crisp is the ozone layer. From space, you can see just how thin and fragile the ozone layer is. If we destroy it, we will literally burn ourselves to death.
Episode 4: Genesis
A star exploded and its stardust formed planets with elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, which formed into molecules like DNA, which formed into life—a living microbial cell—which self-replicated with random mutations. These mutations caused the cell to evolve into more complex life like plants and animals—all life on Earth, including humans. We are all stardust. Stellar explosions that resulted from the Big Bang.
Episode 5: Survival
The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs killed almost all life on Earth. The land and air were uninhabitable due to the sudden change in climate. Only the small animals that lived underground and could control their body temperature (warm-blooded mammals) survived and evolved, eventually into humans.
Sexual reproduction creates diversity among life over the course of evolution, and diversity is what allows life to not go completely extinct. If life is diverse enough, at least some of the millions of species on the planet will always survive, no matter what kind of natural (or man-made) disaster may strike.
When one species dies, its cells decompose and are repurposed to create new life. All life on Earth is connected.
Episode 6: Escape
We need a space program to expand and colonize other planets in order to survive the next existential event. Because a disaster will strike Earth again—eventually.
Humans have more bacteria cells on their bodies than human cells. We need bacteria to survive. It’s a symbiotic relationship—they help us and we help them.
We’ve adapted to live on Earth with its precise conditions, and likewise, Earth has adapted to us. We’ve essentially terraformed the planet through agriculture and architecture. We can do the same with Mars and other planets. But once we live in space or on an alien planet long enough, we will adapt to the different conditions, changing our biology so much that we will no longer be human.
Episode 7: Terraform
Early life terraformed the planet to make it habitable for itself. Lichen caused the lava which created land and all life thereafter. Life is like an entity that uses the process of evolution to create the best form of itself. Whichever survives and reproduces the most “wins.” That could be humans, rats, ants, bacteria, or even AI. It doesn’t matter to life. If one life form survives over another life form, it is a better-suited life form for the current environment. Everything is natural—all materials, even rocks, stones, and metals, are made from former life. Earth will be fine in the future. Life always finds a way. The question is will human life?
Episode 8: Alien
The search for alien life really begins on Earth. We must first figure out how life appeared on our planet to begin with then evolved so complexly as to turn into humans.
Life exists everywhere on Earth, just in different forms depending on the environment and what adaptations help survival and reproduction. Alien life would do the same: evolve to adapt to the environmental conditions on its planet.
In many ways, bacteria (microbes) are the most evolved life form on Earth, even more so than humans, because they were the first life form and have therefore been evolving longer (BILLIONS of years longer). Bacteria exists anywhere and everywhere on Earth. Plus, we ourselves are made of 90% bacteria.
Microbial life may very well exist on alien planets (possibly billions of alien planets), but very few probably ever advance to more complex life (multi-cellular mitochondria) like Earth. Fewer still would evolve into intelligent life like humans.
Episode 9: Awakening
The human brain is the most complicated thing in the universe (that we know of so far). Our brains are what separate us from every other organism on the planet. We have a brain that enables consciousness.
Another unique aspect of Earth is it has an atmosphere capable of producing fire. Humans inventing fire allowed them to cook food, increasing their brain size, which was necessary for creating language. Random mutations in evolution gave us tongues and mouths capable of speech and language. Language was really our first and most important “technological” invention. All of humanity’s achievements, including all our technology and art, would have been impossible without language and consciousness, which are impossible without our uniquely large brains—all a product of evolution.
Episode 10: Home
When astronauts go into space they get this feeling called the “Overview Effect.” They see how small Earth is and how connected we all are. Towns, states, countries, borders, and continents don’t matter. We’re all on this same planet together. Everything anyone does on one part of the globe effects everything else.
Astronauts also see so much empty space and wonder what, if anything, is out there. Consider the size of the universe: there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, each with potentially habitable planets, and there are trillions of other galaxies in the universe. Those kinds of numbers are so staggeringly large that they are incomprehensible to our brains. And that’s just the observable universe. There could be (probably are) more galaxies. To think that all the trillions of planets in each of the trillions of galaxies are all dead and empty of life seems highly improbable. Yet we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations… Why? That’s the central question of the Fermi Paradox.
The answer to the paradox may be that the universe is so large that the distances between solar systems are so vast (our closest star is 17,000 years away traveling at the fastest we currently can). Plus, the edge of the Milky Way galaxy is much further still: 25,000 LIGHT YEARS away. Meaning, if in the future we invent technology to travel at the fastest speed possible by the laws of physics (the speed of light), which keep in mind we are nowhere near being able to do yet, it would still take 25,000 years to get there. And that’s the closest among trillions of other galaxies. This is most likely why we haven’t heard from aliens. It could take millions of years (at least) for them to reach us (and we them). Then there’s the age of the universe (13.8 billion years). Earth (4.5 billion years) is young by comparison, and humans (200,000 years) are young compared to that, and human civilization (12,000 years) is young compared to that, and the technology to send signals to space (44 years) is younger still. Millions of alien civilizations could have risen and fallen before we ever had the technology to detect them.
Life almost certainly exists on other planets, but intelligent life (like humans) is another matter. There are/were millions of species on our planet, yet we are the only one to ever evolve into the conscious beings we are, capable of inventing technology. Life on alien planets would likely have to follow the same evolutionary path that Homo sapiens did, in order to develop intelligence, consciousness, and technology—the things necessary to travel to (or at least send signals to) other planets.
Earth truly is one strange (and special) rock. For all we know, it’s the only planet like it in the universe. As humans, the one species capable of understanding the significance of life and Earth, it is our duty to take care of this place we call home.