An Exercise in Perspective

If you’re not familiar with the HubbleSite, you should be. The official website of the Hubble Space Telescope is rich with scientific background, news releases and announcements of new discoveries, and of course, jaw-dropping imagery of the cosmos, taken by one of humanity’s most justifiably famous scientific instruments.

One of Hubble’s newest images has left me feeling inspired, and I’d like to say a few words about it. But first, the picture itself:

This stunningly gorgeous image is a view of the spiral galaxy M81, one of the so-called “grand design” spiral galaxies due to its intricate and sharply delineated structure. In Hubble’s view, the spiral arms of the galaxy are clearly visible, a vast whirlpool of stars, nebulae and interstellar dust revolving around the galactic core. M81 is about 12 million light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Ursa Major, and is one of the brightest galaxies that can be seen from our planet (although it is just slightly too faint to view with the unaided eye, though easily seen with a telescope). M81 has lent its name to the cluster of galaxies in which it can be found, the M81 Cluster, sister to the Local Group of galaxies that contains our own Milky Way. Both the M81 Cluster and the Local Group, in turn, are part of the larger Virgo Supercluster, a group of galaxies spanning 150 million light-years.

M81 is similar in many ways to our own Milky Way. The galaxy’s central disk contains relatively older, cooler reddish stars, while the spiral arms are home to hot, young blue stars, created by the rotation that sends waves of gas and dust sweeping across the galaxy like ripples in a pond, triggering bursts of star formation. At the center of M81, unseen, lurks a monster: a black hole with the mass of 70 million suns, sending out jets of radiation as raw starstuff swirling into its maw is churned and heated by the acceleration. Though the black hole itself swallows light and thus is invisible, in ultraviolet imagery we can see the white-hot accretion disk surrounding it, the last cry of matter falling into the abyss and out of our space-time continuum. (The Milky Way, too, has a central black hole, though ours has consumed all the gas and dust in its vicinity and has therefore become quiescent.)

Look again at that striking Hubble image. As beautiful as this picture is, I don’t mind admitting that I feel a tremor of fear when I view it, especially at the larger resolutions. I feel this way because I know what that image represents: something so breathtakingly vast – something cosmic, in the truest sense of the word – that it beggars the imagination and overwhelms the ability of the mind to truly conceptualize it. Before the intricacy and scale of even a single galaxy, all of humanity and in truth the Earth itself is reduced to infinitesimal size, infinite insignificance. Compared to M81 or the Milky Way as a whole, we are not even a glimmer, not even a speck of dust. The cosmic forces that operate on the very largest of scales utterly determine our fate, beyond the ability of any person to resist or escape, and yet they are utterly incognizant of us. We could be brushed out of existence by them tomorrow, and in the grand scheme of things, the universe would never know that we had even existed. That, I think, is awe in the truest sense of the word: to stand before that which is so much greater than the self, and know yourself to be humbled by comparison.

Now, I’d like to propose an exercise in perspective. We inhabitants of Earth are embedded within the Milky Way, and cannot see it from outside. But if we could travel the staggering distance required to view our galaxy from the outside, from intergalactic space, it would probably look very much as M81 does.

Imagine, therefore, that this picture is of the Milky Way. In that case, our own sun, our solar system, our tiny and humble Earth would be located on the outer fringes, in one of the galaxy’s spiral arms. On an image of the scale of this one, of course, they would be utterly invisible. This picture contains billions and billions of suns, and from this distance they are not distinguishable as individuals. Their light blends together into a hazy, glowing cloud, occasionally swirled through with dark lanes of dust. On the scale of this image, our mighty Sun would dwindle to a dust speck, just one of the thousands of stars whose light contributes to each pixel on your screen. The Earth itself, a tiny pale blue dot next to the Sun, would be as a dust speck to a dust speck. And humanity and all our mighty works, a thin, fragile skim of life on the surface of our world, would be even less altogether.

Consider the cosmos from this perspective, and then ask yourself: Do you believe that all of this was made just for us?

On our world today, there are still representatives of ancient religions who hold that the entire vast universe was created solely for man and placed under our governance – that the natural laws that apply on every scale across the cosmos and govern the origin and future evolution of billions of galaxies and trillions of stars were fine-tuned for humanity’s benefit – that our tiny planet is the only place God cares about, the only place he is interested in – and that on our judgment day, all the stars and all the galaxies will be rolled together as a scroll and will cease to exist.

The presumption, the sheer arrogance of this belief boggles the mind. It would make as much sense for a single atom within your body, if atoms were conscious, to declare its dominion over you and assert that you exist only as a vessel for the drama of its individual salvation. Some other believers, though they do not go so far as this, still assert that the laws of nature single out humans as special, treating us as different from everything else that exists.

We are such a small, such an infinitesimal part of the cosmos as to utterly destroy any ridiculous claims that it was all crafted for our benefit. Next to even one galaxy, we are less than nothing. And M81 is not all there is, but rather only one galaxy among billions, one tiny part of a tableau so grand that even magnificent spirals like this one shrink to insignificance in comparison. When we peer deeply into space, we see a fractal-like scene, with even the tiniest possible patch of the night sky turning out to contain thousands of galaxies. The hierarchy of scale runs beyond anything we can visualize or comprehend. How could anyone believe that it was all put here for our sake?

Image credit: HubbleSite via NASA/STScI

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