How a Big Picture Changed My Big Picture
(Above photo: Courtesy of www.bootsandabackpack.com)
I clearly remember in 2013 standing at the top of Mt John, near beautiful Lake Tekapo, New Zealand, gazing up in wonder at the magnificent night sky above. It was 1:00 am and the view was breathtaking. That’s it in the photo.
Mt John is a special place (see www.earthandskynz.com) because it’s in the middle of nowhere and this gives it a distinct advantage.
Due to the lack of nearby cities and towns it’s quite dark outside at night. Years ago scientists realised that this made it an ideal place to build an observatory to study the stars.In fact, it has the second most clear view of the night sky in the world.
So there I was with my daughter and some fellow tourists on a guided tour of the night sky and I distinctly remember thinking, “Wow! This is simply awesome. It’s almost impossible to describe in words what I’m seeing, thinking and feeling right now. The Universe is so huge and there are millions and millions of stars! The size, distances and sheer complexity! It’s almost un-be-lievable!”
Some Mind-boggling Facts
Here are some interesting facts I learned that night. Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our Sun. It’s 4.3 light years away which is a very big number indeed. It’s approximately the distance you’d travel if you were moving at the speed of light for 4.3 years – it’s an extremely long way. So much so that even trying to put it into kilometres for distance is a waste of time because you and I can’t imagine a number that big. (For the record, it’s 25,222,492,800,000 kilometres!)
And that’s the nearest star to us.
If you look up into the sky and see it (whether you can will depend on which part of the world you’re in at the time), then next to it is Beta Centauri which is 530 light years away from us – the numbers are already getting ridiculous. Even though that’s a very big number it’s actually a very small number in the context of the Universe.
Our Milky Way, which is the galaxy our solar system is in, is 100,000 light years across from one side to the other. And so far, we haven’t even left our own galaxy yet!
How Many Stars Are There for Heaven’s Sake?
While I was looking up at the night sky at Mt John, and sweeping my vision from full left to full right, I wondered how many stars there actually were and whether it was possible to know that? I asked one of the guides and he said, “We believe there are about 6,000 visible to the naked eye, if you combine both hemispheres.” That’s stars, like our sun, not including planets! And this is just what you and I can see without any instruments.
Of course, with instruments astronomers can see all manner of things including suns, galaxies, groups of galaxies, giant gas clouds, supernovas and so on.
As I stood there looking up, pulling my thick down coat around me for a little warmth, I thought, “And this is a mere slither of what’s actually out there. It’s mind-boggling. “Where,” I almost wondered aloud, “is God? There’s nothing out there but space and the cosmos. How can we rationally conclude that we’re the centre of creation? It’s almost absurd.”
Despite being a committed evangelical christian for 30 + years, I was undergoing a significant transition away from religion and this night was pivotal because of the science in front of me.
Weren’t Not the Centre of Anything
It’s challenging to note that Earth is not the centre of anything. Earth isn’t in the centre of our solar system – it’s the 3rd rock out from the sun. Our solar system isn’t the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It’s located on a minor arm of the spiral called the Orion Spur which itself is not the centre at all – it’s two-thirds of the way out from the centre. Why do we think Earth is so special, that some god or agency has a special focus on us?
And we haven’t even begun to look at the rest of the Universe (or Multi-verse as some are beginning to call it) because astronomers and cosmologists believe that there are about 100,000,000,000 galaxies, although they concede they don’t really know exactly.
What Hubble Showed Us
For a long time it was widely believed that when we looked through powerful telescopes from Earth and saw patches of dark in the night sky, there was not really anything more there. However, in 1990 the Hubble Telescope was launched into space. Because of the extra clarity gained by looking at the stars from outside of Earth’s atmosphere, scientists were then able to see much more than before.
One photo is mind-blowing. An image was taken one night of a patch of darkness out in what’s called ultra-deep space. Here it is…
It’s estimated that in this one photo alone there are a further 10,000 stars and/or galaxies viewable.
Because the shutter of the powerful camera was left open for a very long time compared to normal (in this case many hours), even the dimmest, faintest light out there could be detected. And by keeping the shutter open for even longer, and zooming in on only a small section of the above photo, where they first saw complete darkness, after processing that image this is what they saw.
To me, this forces a re-think on the myth of biblical creation, or any creation myth for that matter, that suggests that there is an agency out there that created all this. If so, where is this god? No one has yet seen any kind of being, mist or presence anywhere out there yet in the night sky. Anywhere.
So Where is Our Solar System All Heading?
Astronomers tell us that our Sun is on an inexorable march towards oblivion. Yes, in about 6 to 7 billion years from now it will have heated and expanded to such a degree that it will become what’s called a red giant and then it will puff off its outer layers and leave just the core. This will have completely obliterated the planets Mercury, Venus and Earth in the process. It will result in what’s called a white dwarf star with a temperature of only a few degrees above zero.
Don’t worry. By then, and in fact well before, we will all have long gone. At the end of the day, the days will end.
How do scientists know this is going to happen? Primarily because all of the above is currently observable by cosmologists and astronomers looking at other older stars than ours noting the progression of them through stages. They compare these stages to those of our sun. There are some stars that have gone super-nova, some are heating and some are cooling. This is data that is verifiable through the science of light, wavelengths and time even if these stars are very, very far away.
Now some people will no doubt think this is very pessimistic. I don’t agree. To me, and many others, this is simply what is. There seems little point in asking why. It just is.
Look for the Beauty in Every Day and Moment
So, we can take the view that there is no reason to have hope and that life is just a waste of random energy on Earth with no purpose.
Or, we can see this universe as wonderous, amazing and beautiful. And feel a sense of opportunity that we have a mere 70 or 80 years of life on our tiny planet, Earth. So, we’d better make the most of them.
And that, in my view, is the meaning of life. That, and what we choose to give meaning to.
So, in January 2013, at 2:00am, my daughter and our fellow observers finished our tour of the Mt John Observatory having seen many stars, learned about Alpha and Beta Centauri, met an astronomer who was working late into the night to learn about a cluster of stars recently discovered, and having stood quietly absorbing the intense beauty of the night sky above. It was like staring at a huge diamond display.
We boarded the minibus and headed back down the mountain. After arriving back at our nearby accommodation, I got changed for bed and slid under the covers in a darkened room. I glanced up at the ceiling. I could no longer see the stars – the window to the Universe had closed for the night.
But in my mind, it was still wide open. I was still filled with wonder as I gently drifted off to sleep.