Saturday, November 16, 2013


Galaxy M64, image courtesy NASA
           "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." - Carl Sagan
Images of galaxies fascinate me. I can look at them for hours. Go out and look at the night sky sometime; consider the sheer immensity of the starry vista you see above you. What you see, as huge as it might seem to you, as filled with stars as it is, it is only a tiny patch, one pixel in a large picture, of the entirety of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Then consider that some of those stars and bright spots may well be galaxies as well, containing hundreds of billions of stars themselves. Consider even further that what you're looking at when you view one of these galaxies is roughly the same size as the Milky Way, our own galaxy. Consider: something the size of the Milky Way, itself so vast that, at best, we can catch sight of it as a pale arch spanning the sky, is a bright, fragile mote to your eye.

Think about that: all the stellar history, stars winking into being and exploding into spectacular death, or collapsing into a crushing senility, all in that mote. Much of all that history occurred before the Earth - or the Sun! - had formed. The empty gulfs of space and time and burning glory stretching into a near-eternity, eons before our own star had begun to form, maybe even while the stars whose deaths would have to occur to provide the raw material for the Sun to come into being were still pulsing along in the midst of their own lives.

Then think of all the countless billions of galaxies known to be out there, and all the untold multitudes we will never even suspect existed. Each galaxy whirls silently in the night-bound sky, a multitude of stars coalesced into a titanic pinwheel. It's a thought that can make you feel small, inconsequential.

We aren't inconsequential, though. We fill a very important role, all of us, as we grasp at understanding, each one of us adding his or her own knowledge and wisdom into the great collective consciousness of humanity. To us, as individuals, with our mayfly-lives sparking into being and almost as quickly fading from view, it may seem we have struggled for eons as a species to reach some greater understanding. The tapestry of human history stretches off behind us into what looks like a dim past. In cosmic terms, of course, we have hardly arrived yet, fresh on the scene, impatient to begin. We strive and delve and compete and contemplate and explore, our pace dizzying when compared to the slow, stately procession of events that turn the universe. That pace seems to have accelerated even more, to a breakneck speed, within the last century or so. The knowledge we gain seems to grow exponentially with each revolution around the Sun. And we do all this together, pouring our experiences and thoughts into the vessel of our potential, filling that void rapidly.

We are all important, because we carry the potential of us as a species within each of us as individuals. What we do with that potential is up to us. As tiny as we might feel at times, as lost as we might seem in the teeming multitudes here on our planet, itself infinitesimally small in the great sea of stars that stretches into infinity, we each can contemplate our surroundings and attempt a greater understanding of ourselves, and thus, the universe as a whole. We are made of "star-stuff," as Sagan said; we are an extension of the universe itself that has gained sentience, and is now attempting to know itself. We each have the potential to increase that knowledge. How much more important can we be?

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