Last time I posted this picture from the Hubble telescope, which shows an unbelievable amount of galaxies in a pinpoint of the sky. To give you a sense of scale, if our sun equalled one grain of sand, then the universe's stars would equal all the rest of the sand on all the beaches on earth. All of them. That's how big the universe is. For some reason NASA's image had a profound impact on me, and I wanted to get some of it out in writing. This is what I see.
I see the second law of thermodynamics at work, yet I see us breaking that law here on earth. The law says that heat and energy tend to disperse until they're in equillibrium with what's around it, like the warmth of a fire working its way through your house, instead of focusing itself three feet from the fireplace. Yet the human race continually harnesses energy for our own uses, often concentrating it exactly where we want. And we keep getting better at it.
I see a place where we are almost certainly not alone, but almost certainly are too far away to ever meet our neighbors. Going back to the second law, I think that our planet, our existence and our progress makes humanity special, but not necessarily unique. I see a place so big that it will demand technology far beyond today's science fiction to even begin exploring the closest quarters around us. I think one day our descendents will do exactly that.
I see a place that will teach us more about ourselves as we explore it. Finding "The New World" didn't solve all Europeans' problems, and it created many horrible new problems for Native Americans. I don't like the price that was paid for this land, yet I am acutely grateful to live in this country. Expansion tends to bring new situations to people, and these situations expose new character traits we may not have been aware of. This is when we learn and grow. There are human beings living on every continent of the world, living under the surface of the sea, and even living in orbit. When we combine this scientific knowledge with similar growth of the human spirit, life gets better.
Author Gregg Easterbrook has a wonderful thought experiment in one of his books -- if you could trade places with a random person alive 100 years ago, would you do it? How about 500 years ago? 1,000? In general, most people say no, because the average life today is longer, safer and better than it was back then. Again, in the midst of a massive universe, where energy tends to dissipate and unfocus... we're moving forward.
I see God in the picture. I see a being so incredibly out of my league that I'm sure he laughs at our petty doctrinal disagreements. Yet I believe he cares about us, and has placed some of his spirit in each of us, and when we pay attention to that, we improve. I believe we're a very important part of some kind of beautiful project happening in this universe, and it will be eons before we have an inkling of understanding what this is all about. I can wait, and I have faith it will be amazing.
I see strangeness, which makes me instinctively cling to what is familiar and what is like me. Namely, other people. Especially my family. Show a child the view from a skyscraper and they will grab a parent's hand and hold it tight. My emotional reaction to the Hubble's view is the same. It's a big, foreign place out there, and I'm glad we're in this thing together.
I'm a sub-atomic particle spinning around a single grain of sand, in the middle of all the world's beaches. And that suits me just fine. I hope to make my little microscopic neighborhood the best it can be. And have fun all the way.
The Swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano
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