Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Our Place in the Universe

Delusions of Grandeur

Humans have the amazing inclination to feel like we are the most important thing in the universe.  In the not so distant past, nearly everyone thought our solar system was all there was to the cosmos.  Not only that, but they also largely believed that the Sun and planets all revolved around the Earth.  We have since learned that the Earth revolves around the Sun (with all the other planets in our solar system), and our entire solar system revolves around the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.  In fact, up until as recently as the 1920's, astronomers were under the impression that our immense galaxy was all that existed.

Boy, were we wrong.  It turns out that the universe is so much larger than we can even hope to fathom.  The following video poignantly illustrates the size of the earth in comparison with the size of stars in the universe.

When I first saw this video, I was continually amazed by each new and larger star that was shown.  Each time I saw a star in comparison, I thought that surely this has to be the biggest one!  But they kept coming, until very quickly had lost all grasp on the scales that we were dealing with.  Remember, these are just stars, which already dwarf our planet and indeed our own star, and the universe is full of giant clusters of stars, called galaxies.  Our own Milky Way galaxy has at least 100 billion stars in it.  And that's just one of the 100 billion galaxies that we know about in the universe.  The following video gives a relative scale of not only the stars, but the entire observable universe.

Remember that at the end of that video, all of those billions of dots that resemble stars are not stars at all!  Each one is a galaxy much like our own, containing hundreds of billions of stars!  The Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light years across (6 quintillion miles, which is 6, followed by 18 zeros), and our nearest neighbor galaxy, M31, is likely more than double that size and contains about a trillion stars!  That's just two relatively typical objects in the universe.

The observable universe is considered a spherical distance from us of 13.7 billion light years.  That is 82,200,000,000,000,000,000,000 (82 sextillion, 200 quintillion) miles in any direction.  Such a distance and size cannot be related in any meaningful way, I'm afraid - it's just so outside the norm of what we experience in our daily lives.  But we can still appreciate (perhaps not fully) that the universe is mind-bogglingly huge, and our planet is by comparison, mind-bogglingly insignificant.  Another staggering thought is that the reason why we can see only 13.7 billion light years out is that there has not been enough time for the light of any possible objects past that distance to reach us!  We have no reason to assume the universe just stops past 13.7 billion light years.  If an object is 14 billion light years away from us, we won't be able to see it for another 300 million years.

The Universe's Concerns are Not Our Own.

Stop for a moment and think about the size of it all.  How does this fit in with what you already believe about the world and what's important?  All of our self-aggrandizing ideals and desires seem less than trivial.  Any racial or geographical prejudices seem inane and immature.  It is an incredibly humbling experience.  For me, contemplating the universe from its immense size to its intricate complexity is a "religious" experience.  So small seems the god I used to believe in, so narrow the focus of his concern for us when compared to the unfathomably gigantic universe.  The late Richard Feynman, the famous quantum physicist, echoes this cosmic humility.

Richard Feynman would not normally be accused of being humble, but when the scale of the universe is concerned, he recognized that we are nearly nothing. He asserts the superiority of scientific inquiry over theology for finding the truth because science starts from doubt. You are trying to find out, but trying to prove your theory wrong all the time. Theology starts from a place of belief, and never tries to disprove itself. When asking normal, non-religious questions about how the world works, which approach seems more reliable? Why, then, do so many of us throw that reasoning out the window when it comes to issues of cosmic existence, such as God?

It seems to me that given the history of knowledge about the world and universe around us, it seemed very reasonable that a god would concern himself with us and involve himself in our lives. After all, people didn't think there was anything other than the solar system for a long time (and before that, the concept of space was not even close to forming), and even then thought that Earth, and all of humankind was the most important thing in the universe. But as our knowledge increased, our ignorance necessarily decreased. But still, the idea of a personal, yet omnipotent god clings to life.  It made sense then, but does it still make sense today, given all we know?
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