May 16, 2017.
On Friday I got the news – scientists have determined that our universe has around two trillion galaxies. You know, a trillion here, a trillion there, as the fellow said, and pretty soon, you’re talking about a lot of galaxies….
This is really staggering news. Our own galaxy has at least 100 billion planets in it, and possibly as many as 400 billion. Even this seems conservative, as it assumes no more than a single planet per star. But granting some authority to the current estimate, and concluding that there is no particular reason that the Milky Way has fewer planets than, for example, GN-z11, then the number of planets out there is equal to 100 billion times 2 trillion.
I’m not sure what you get when you multiply 100 billion by 2 trillion – apparently, it’s two million quintillion or (in other words) two septillion (which is a 2 followed by 24 zeroes). Even if I got that wrong, it’s still really, you know, a big number. As of Thursday, there were a few billion galaxies. Twenty years ago, our solar system held the only known planets. As of yesterday, even the most famous Earthlings have attained an astonishing insignificance. Earth itself is more insignificant than it was on Thursday. Our planet is really a gnat buzzing around in space.
Clearly, these numbers are not in any way remotely precise, but they drive home a few points – if indeed, as is generally assumed, life has probably arisen on other planets, and the conditions required for life has probably arisen on even more, then right now there are countless oceans lapping up on countless shores, some that were, billions of years ago, observed by sentient creatures from long-extinct, long-forgotten species. And some objectively beautiful oceans – right now, dappled with the light of a spectacular sunrise, multiple moons glittering in their depths – have been observed by no sentient creatures, not ever. Dead planets, whose lifeforms died a billion years ago, populations made up of billions of fellows who were sentient just like you and me – who thought they had souls – and whose entire population now lies beneath miles of dust under a lifeless atmospheric canopy. Have all those lives gone to their Heavenly reward? He let loose the east wind from the heavens and by His power made the south wind blow, or so they say. Yet, right now, the wind blows dust off the tops of a quintillion beautiful mountains, and the dust drifts down into a quintillion valleys, seen and observed by no one. Would a God who created a universe this large truly care about blowing that dust off a quintillion mountains? Would He really care about the blue fringe?
Lawrence Krauss, the physicist and prominent atheist, says, “I think one of the big misunderstandings and abuses of the discussion of science is that science takes away spirituality, which is really awe and wonder and a sense of something bigger than oneself, but the stuff that is bigger than oneself doesn’t have to be unreal – it can be real and part of an amazing cosmos, as I like to say – being completely insignificant is uplifting and can be a spiritual experience….”
On Friday, I sat in a conference room, in a meeting, staring into the abyss; I know that on Thursday, I was already quite insignificant. But on Friday, I was more insignificant. So far, I do not find this particularly uplifting and spiritual, but I am working on it.
Photo below from Reuters/NASA