IPHAS / Nick Wright, University College London
Each of the millions of unnamed stars surrounding this nebula might light its own worlds, but our relative cosmic smallness shouldn't make us feel insignificant.
Last month I attended an international astronomy conference. The subject was dying solar-type stars but the topic really didn’t matter. It was the experience that counted and it happens to me all the time.
I was caught once again by the question of cosmic insignificance and it woke me up.
It was the 4th day of the conference, around 2 pm. That’s oatmeal hour when your brain turns to goo from sitting too long in a dark room as a death march of Power Point slides troops by. Then a new image flashed onto the screen and everything changed.
The image showed an exquisitely sculpted gas cloud surrounding an exhausted star. Variegated and scalloped the light-year spanning nebula glowed in a million hues of scarlet, azure and viridian. But it wasn’t the nebula that brought me out of my stupor.
It was the stars.
Behind and before the gas cloud were stars –- insignificant, unnamed, unnoticed –- a million stars. The entire image covered a sliver of sky about the size of the Lincoln’s chin on a penny held at arms length and yet it was carpeted with seemly uncountable stars
My eyes came to rest on a random spark of light in the images’ upper left hand corner.
“That one,” I thought to myself, “what is going on there right now?” Then my eye would drift to some other bright dot “What about there?” I thought, “That’s a place too. What’s happening there?” Every star was a fire, lighting up some family of worlds perhaps. Inhabited or not, it did not matter. They all had a “here” and a “now.” So many stars, so many places.
Sometimes when I give a popular astronomy talk someone will ask if the immensity of the Universe with its uncountable stars makes me feel insignificant, small and meaningless. “Doesn’t that bother you?” they will ask. Depending on the crowd I may or may not give my real answer.
Yes, I do feel small but I never feel insignificant or without meaning. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The vast cosmic architecture we have discovered to be our home fills me with a profound sense of place and belonging. My deepest response is, if anything, a sense of spirit enlarged.
My colleagues here at the 13.7 Blog have each written eloquently of how science can evoke sensibilities that can only be called sacred. They have spoken of how what we normally think of as religious feeling can be, and is, a natural response to the cosmos revealed by science. My visceral reaction to that unnamed star among thousands in that unnamed image fits the definition of religious feeling and — atheist that I am — I have no problem calling it as such.
Standing under the wheeling stars on a dark night we have all felt their vast weight of timelessness press down on us. Standing at the ocean's edge we can feel the same sense of openness, of space and possibility, extending far beyond our own small lives and small concerns. Rather than disconnection and isolation, if we let those moments take us, we might catch a glimpse of our seamless integration in the whole. The insignificance we feel is just a reminder of the human ego and its childish demands. One role of science, what can only be called its spiritual role, is to help us mature out of childhood to gain a wider, more balanced and more inclusive perspective. It’s a perspective that can only help us as our emerging global culture struggles to find its own balance.
Those stars out there. They are all places just like this one.
Those people we meet each day — they all carry their own universes with them. Just like we do.
It’s all of a piece. Just one simple snapshot of the sky – taken with un-simple astronomical technology – opens the great mystery that is life and Being for us. It’s a lesson of great value and it's always available to us.