In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.
There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.
But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.
To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.
In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).
People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.
With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?
I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.
Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.
This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010
**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”