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“Are We Special?” Day 5 Earth Week: Reasons to Hope

April 24, 2015

I had intended to write about something different today, but as I drove in this morning, I listened to a brief NPR piece on the 25th anniversary of launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and suddenly found myself wiping away tears. Because of Hubble, and its widely shared images, we have come to understand that the universe is more vast by many orders of magnitude than we had thought. “There have been a few times in our history that we have completely transformed our understanding of the basic, fundamental question of “What is our place in the universe,” observed Jason Kalirai, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. In 1995, a 10 day glimpse into what seemed a dark part of the sky, the “Deep Field,” revealed over a thousand hubble fieldundiscovered galaxies, each containing billions of solar systems.  And then Kalirai reflected on this sequence of photos and said a most curious thing:  “I think Hubble’s contribution is that we’re not that special.”

I suppose if you consider such an expansion of the map of the universe to be primarily the discovery of more matter, on top of the matter we already knew about, which means we are an even smaller percentage of the universe’s matter than we thought previously, this discovery is sort of literally diminishing: “We are not that special.”

But through another lens, so to speak, here, some billions of years after all this matter and energy were hurled through halos of fire across endless space, we find that the universe has organized itself into beings that can view the edges of infinity. We are these sentient – sensing, thinking, feeling-  beings. In a certain light, we are sense organs of existence itself. We live in a world that thinks, feels and knows. And one of the creatures it made for that work is… US. To paraphrase Gibran, we shouldn’t speak of having the world in our heart, as much as we should understand that we are in the heart of the world. What could be more special?

Two years ago, I snipped a pic from the Deep Field photo library and made it my desktop background. Sometimes when I’m flailing around in the cognitive (dis)array so common these days (and so precisely represented by the desktop icon mayhem) one of those little blinks in the picture will capture my attention and I’ll take a deep breath and pause for a minute and send my attention out into the universe. Hubble deep field desktopEach of those little blinks is a galaxy. Not a solar system. Each contains billions or hundreds of billions of solar systems. Those suns are orbited by planets, some like ours. These pictures represent about a three degree sliver slice of the whole pie of the sky. I am reminded of Einstein’s famous decree: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Of course there’s no objective way to know if we are special. I’m not sure it matters. Either way, this life and the chance to look at it through these eyes, through the Hubble telescope, seems like a bit of a miracle to me. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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