A grain of sand in the Unknown
The iconic Hubble Deep Field View shows a small region in the constellation Formax, containing over 10 thousand galaxies. The images were collected by the Hubble Telescope between 2003 and 2004. Sometimes called The Most Important Image of the Universe Ever Taken, the image shows us just a sliver, a “grain of sand” in the cosmic sea. Each one of those 10 thousand galaxies contains millions of stars and as we now know, each one of those stars is likely a “sun” orbited by exoplanets –other worlds which may host some kind of life. And that is just a small section of the sky—the numbers are off the chart when one considers the billions of other galaxies in the known universe. And for those of us given to contemplation when looking out into the night sky–that is plenty to contemplate:)
I have been a member of the Planetary Society ( TPS) , a private, citizen funded organization dedicated to space exploration, since 1992. It is pure science and technology and not only has TPS accomplished some amazing things, such as the recent successful launch of a solar light sail, but it has been a rich source of information for me on all aspects of current and past space missions and discoveries. It is not, nor has it ever been , about religion or faith of any kind. As a matter of fact, the current CEO of the Society , Bill Nye ( yes –that guy–the Science Guy–my kids loved his show and so did I !) is well known for his anti-religion stance in various online debates. But that is a moot point for someone like me who believes that science and religion don’t have to be mutually exclusive of each other. So I was especially moved and delighted to read the short article by TPS Chief Operating Officer, Jennifer Vaughn, at the closing section of the September episode of “The Planetary Report”. On the topic of “Why I Explore”, she entitled her reflection ” Welcoming the Unknown” and it really resonated with me. It had absolutely nothing to do with religion, or even faith but it might be considered spiritual-depending on your understanding/interpretation of the word . Jennifer talks about welcoming the feeling of insignificance she feels when beholding the beauty and wonder of a dark night sky.
“I find comfort in thinking about the countless generations of humans looking into the same night sky and asking questions similar to the ones that I ask” , she says. ” I delight in the images sent back from distant explorers that reveal far away worlds, many of which look like our own.”
She then goes on to liken her embracing of the feeling of insignificance that this produces to meditation or even a prayer. Interestingly, these are words and practices that are often associated with, if not religion, most certainly spirituality. The same would apply to practices like contemplation and reflection which are often induced by the sheer awe and wonder of the night sky, especially when one considers the almost incomprehensible breadth of a universe that contains millions of galaxies and as Carl Sagan would say, ” billions and billions ” of stars. And as we now know, each of those stars is likely host to a solar system of exoplanets, other worlds of a number which is infinitesimal. That is a lot to contemplate and reflect on and I would defy anyone who claimed to look at such a sight and not have an experience that is –well—spiritual 🙂
As Jennifer concludes her moving piece by saying that she will continue to welcome the unknown by “leaning into her curiosity and reveling in the joy of discovery and finding deep significance in feeling insignificant ” — I would encourage all of us to do the same. It matters not whether you are doing it for scientific reasons or so-called spiritual yearnings. In my experience, they meet somewhere in the middle anyway. We all long to know where we came from and why we are here and more importantly–if we are alone in the unimaginable vastness of a universe that leaves us feeling deliciously insignificant and yet a very special part of something larger at the same time. I call if the Cosmic Paradox 🙂 We are all really small and really big –at the same time!
Too often, I look around me and see everyone looking down at their phones or other “smart” devices. And sometime I am guilty of this too. But I am always aware of the importance of looking at and appreciating the wonder of nature. Remind your friend, child, colleague etc. of the importance of looking up and losing yourself in the stars. Take them out on a dark night and show them the Milky Way or the rings of Saturn in a telescope or binoculars. Share the experience of welcoming the unknown with them: it just may change them–and you too 🙂