informal essays

Reactions to Hubble

We walked into the St. Louis Science Center at 7:26. We thought the Hubble film at the Omnimax started at 8:30, and we had leisurely driven into the city, gotten dinner, visited the Apple Store, made a wrong turn between the Galleria and the Science Center, and casually walked from the car to the entrance.

The film actually started at 7:30.

With barely a minute to spare, we chose our seats in the mostly empty theater. It had been a long time since I had last been in this room, and I feared vertigo from the massive curved canvas in front of me – especially with a film about outer space. But the motion picture started without upsetting my internal gyroscopes in the slightest, and I calmly observed the display set before me in a state of wonder.

I often try to appreciate the vastness of Planet Earth, with its thousands of miles of length and depth in the context of my six-foot frame. When we walk a few miles I think about how much land we’re traversing and how many people and objects there are and how all of that is but a minuscule sliver of all that exists on just the surface of Planet Earth. When we drive a few hundred miles I think about how much more land we’re traversing and how many more people and objects we’re passing and how everything that is happening on Planet Earth is happening in a real place in the same plane of existence, as if the atrocities committed in a foreign country are occurring just on the other side of that yonder hill. And when we fly over a thousand miles I look out at the specks below and try to simultaneously comprehend both how much man has transformed the surface of this planet – and how little.

And yet even as I am but one tiny speck on the surface of the giant Earth, the Earth and I make up but one layer of vastness in a mind-boggling array of almost never-ending layers. Last night I learned that the Hubble film is very good at revealing these layers of vastness.

Layer 1 is the Earth. There are shots of astronauts working on the Hubble telescope a few hundred miles above the surface of the Earth, with the occasional continent or ocean in the background. At one point, the astronauts pause to look down on Hawaii. The state was quite likely packed with the 1.4 million Hawaiian residents and any number of bustling tourists, but from 300 miles in the air the islands looked entirely uninhabited – merely colorful shades of green and brown carved against the blue. And from even farther away – say, the moon – the entire planet looks just as serene. Sure, they say you can see the wall of China from space, and I suppose at night you can see the glows of cities. I’m sure there are other things too if you know where to look for them. But it is fascinating that despite the billions of people who have lived on this planet and the thousands of years we have been living on it, despite all the forests we’ve cut down or the record billions of tons of carbon dioxide that we pumped into the air last year, despite all the resources we’ve harvested to build our giant buildings and bridges and airports and ship docks, from a few thousand miles away all you can still see is green and brown, surrounded by blue, overlaid with wisps of white, as if we’re not even here at all.

And that is just our planet. Layer 2 is the Sun and our solar system. The Hubble film kind of jumps past this layer, sparing us the details about the huge distance between the Earth and the Sun and the even larger distances to the other planets, because that has all been well-explored, and the general purpose of the Hubble space telescope was to capture layers far beyond it. Through the giant lens of that telescope we learn that our sun star is but a tiny speck in Layer 3, our Milky Way galaxy. We learn that the Milky Way galaxy is but a tiny speck in Layer 4, a little village of a couple dozen or so galaxies (known as the “Local Group”) where even our galaxy neighbors, such as Andromeda, are millions of light-years away. And even that galaxy village is but a tiny speck in Layer 5 which contains other cities of galaxies in clusters and super-clusters that stretch out across the expanse of the observable universe. It’s one thing to simply know that “space is huge.” It’s quite another thing to visually experience the magnitude of several layers of vastness, each of which are as incredibly huge to the one below it as itself is to the one above it.

In addition to enhancing my appreciation for the vastness of space, the Hubble film also enhanced my appreciation of the efforts of man to comprehend it. Maybe it was just that the film and the giant theater had hurtled me into a state of childlike wonder, but I was marveling as I never had before at the way the space shuttle fired its glorious rockets and smoothly wrested itself free of the Earth’s gravitational pull on its journey into orbit to connect with the telescope. And of course there is the telescope itself, this enormous machine that mankind created (requiring a decade of work from thousands of people), enabling us to capture the depths of the universe as never before.

The array of blinking white dots, visible to the naked eye in the night sky, is beautiful enough, but it is nothing compared to the magnificence of what the sky reveals when you zoom in. The Eye of God, the Pillars of Creation, the Mice – wonderful vortexes of cloud-like masses of endless shapes and colors. It almost seems to me as if God was reveling in his creative glory, painting stars and galaxies into beautiful designs on a limitless canvas, and then decided to create life on the tiniest speck of tiny specks of tiny specks, life that was itself so creative that it could fill us with wonder even if we were completely unaware of the vast creation beyond us. My wife said she likes to think that God made the universe so vast and filled with wonder because he knew that by creating us in his image, we would be creative ourselves and would desire to comprehend the universe that he had made. He knew we would discover and invent things that would enable us to unravel and peek into the layers of vastness, and so he made the universe so vast that no matter how much our technology advanced we could never run out of things to discover.

I don’t know how to reconcile the Bible, which I believe to be true, with the sheer depths of space and time and what appears to be light that is billions of years old traveling from objects that are very, very far away, although it is not difficult for me to consider the vastness of the layers beyond us and conclude that perhaps we do not understand space, or time, or both, quite as well as we think we do. But I thought it was interesting that even the timing of our arrival at the Science Center last night seemed to fit into a cosmic plan. We had the wrong time in our heads, thinking we had an extra hour, and any change in any of the number of leisurely choices we made or the circumstances we encountered that evening could have made us late for the film – from the time we left the house, to the number of questions I asked of Siri at the Apple Store, to the unplanned route we took through the crowded interstate and side roads, to the number of people in line to purchase tickets for the Star Trek exhibition. Yet entirely unbeknownst to us, we arrived at the theater just in time. We were learning about the incredible vastness of space and our own comparative insignificance, but due to the timing of how we got there, it was as if God wanted us to know we were important enough to learn about our unimportance. Such is the great paradox of life.

It is very stimulating to learn about the creative efforts of man to understand the creative efforts of God. It makes one extremely excited about the future. The Science Center has other interesting (though far less stimulating) exhibits and displays about orbital aviation contests and the latest information about plans to return to the moon. In only twenty days NASA is scheduled to launch a new rover to Mars, named Curiosity, to learn more about the planet than we ever have before. What will mankind discover next? What will mankind invent next that will enable us to discover even more? The future is unknown. The future is exciting. Here it comes…