We inhabit an insignificant planet orbiting a small star in an unremarkable galaxy that’s part of a vast universe. And, in case you missed the October surprise (no, not that one), our insignificance just increased. Astronomers studying images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 have concluded that there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of two trillion galaxies in the universe—at least 10 times more than has been assumed for the past 20 years.
Two trillion galaxies. Carl Sagan once termed Earth a “pixel,” but based on this new information, that’s probably stretching it. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively low light pollution, on a clear night you can see the Milky Way spilling across the sky like twinkling diamonds scattered by a careless hand. It’s a sight at once humbling and awe-inspiring—yet what we see represents only the tiniest fraction of what’s out there.
There’s a whirlpool of negativity swirling around these days, but this news about our increased insignificance actually brightened my outlook, paradoxical as that may seem. How? By changing my perspective. Carl Sagan again:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
“Momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? It brings to mind the old Hasidic saying: “Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left, ‘I am dust and ashes.’” Holding those two very different ideas in tension is akin to standing on one foot while juggling three balls. All of us have days when we lose our balance or let a ball (or two) hit the ground. Our egos tug and pull, telling us how important, how unique we are individually and collectively. After all, the world was created for us. And yet, we are dust and ashes, here and then gone, not even a blip on the cosmic scale of things.
Back to those two trillion galaxies: In 2018 NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will allow scientists to explore galaxies they can’t study with the Hubble. Whatever they find, it’s likely to further diminish our standing in the cosmos. Or, to reframe, we’ll be part of something bigger still—a part that matters, regardless of our size relative to the rest of the universe. A closing quote from Carl Sagan, this one with echoes of that Hasidic proverb: “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us.”
Photo credit: Trevor Mendel – Night Sky in the Grand Canyon.