A sense of scale, and my place in the universe

20 Sep

There was a break in the clouds last night, and I quickly set up the telescope and trained it on Jupiter. Almost immediately, the planet was in focus, along with two of the moons, and I could instantly see the planet’s signature cloud bands through the eyepiece. I’m used to seeing Jupiter now – it’s easy to spot and I know what I’m looking for – but it still made my night.

As a child, I had accepted what I’d been taught about the solar system, and the things that were in and beyond it. The planets, their moons, comets, asteroids, stars, nebulae, galaxies. All of these I accepted, because the story made sense to me. But while I accepted them, I did not adequately appreciate the reality of their reality. Consider that most of the humans on this planet will live no more than 10 miles from the place they were born†. How could we possibly be aware of the scale of the universe, and hope to maintain our sanity?

This question actually presented itself last night. I put the telescope away maybe 10 minutes after I’d unpacked it, knowing that the clear patch was only that – a patch. I wasn’t upset – on the contrary, like I said, seeing Jupiter made my night, and that feeling doesn’t go away quickly. I went to bed thinking about the planet, and when I closed my eyes I could see it again, in my mind’s eye.

Suddenly the reality of what I’d seen in my scope that night – and indeed all the nights I’ve looked – slapped me in the face. There’s another planet, one more than 10 times larger than the one I’m standing on, so far away it looks like a bright point of light in the night sky, and it actually exists! Not only does it exist, but so does the distance between the Earth and Jupiter. That space, empty and black – only not really – is actually there, all 387 million miles of it. The fastest human running at top speed would take almost 4,500 years to get there, were it possible in the first place. It takes sunlight more than 40 minutes to reach the planet’s atmosphere (and it takes another 35 or so to reflect back to my eyes). These things are not opinion, not speculation, not inference, not guesswork – they are hard facts, capable of being verified with the simplest of equipment.

I laid in bed honestly awestruck. In my imagination I saw myself lying in my room, surrounded by the four walls, ceiling, and floor. I saw my view of myself zoom away, my field of view expanding to take in the house, then the neighborhood, quickly the entire Earth, then solar system, galaxy, and all of existence. For a brief moment, I understood that I exist in a bubble of nearly infinite size, surrounded by so much space. I existed at the center of this space as less than a speck of a speck.

It wasn’t a peaceful feeling. I was overwhelmed, and scared. This wasn’t just some thoughtful reflection on scale – it was a demonstration! My heart rate rose, goosebumps broke out on my flesh, and for an instant I was lost in this infinite space, and I felt what it is like to truly understand my place, and what it meant to be there. I opened my eyes, and “reality” – human reality, as distinct from real reality – snapped back into place.

We are so lucky to exist in the first place. We have the unique (as far as we know) capacity to understand the universe we live in. We could look to the sky and be filled with it – filled with infinity. We could choose to frame ourselves as unique individual intelligent beings in a universe that has on offer a wonder of beauty and diversity, not just in what we see, but in what we know about how it works.


† – Figure made up on the spot, but it feels right.

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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Astronomy, Dreams


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