Monday, June 8, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part one follow-up

My initial post on 101 Interesting Things dealt with the Antenna Galaxies. I saw an image today that tells another interesting story about space: the Earth is a very small place in a very large Universe.

The Earth is shown, to scale, first next to other bodies in our solar system. Then the Earth vanishes to invisibility as our Sun is compared to other stars, and the Sun then vanishes itself as yet larger stars are shown. Finally, the Sun is shown as a pale cluster of pixels, to scale, next to the largest star known. To still have the Sun register, only about twenty-five degrees of arc length of the larger star can be displayed.

Next, the Hubble deep field image is explained. For those who may not be savvy, the Hubble deep field image is a picture that was assembled from very small, very sensitive images taken over a period of ten days by the Hubble telescope, gathering every single photon it could from a very, very small section of the night sky. About the width of a dime, held at seventy-five feet (or, if you're metrically-inclined, a 65-mm tennis ball held at 100m). Nobody thought we would see much of anything in there, but almost unbelievably, this oh-so-tiny section of sky held galaxies beyond counting, many over 13 billion light years away. Some of them are so far away, the light that is now reaching our eyes was formed by stellar fusion when the Universe was only 800 million years old, and has travelled for almost the entire Universe's lifetime just to reach us. After so long a time, there is precious little evidence of what was going on at the time, and extracting that from amid all the noise surrounding our planet is painstaking - but what we are able to find in even that is rich.

The fact that we are able to do this tells me something both very simple, and very important: the Universe is truly amazing. There are those who think that atheism - a purely scientific world view insofar as it asserts only that we must learn from the Universe by looking at it - lacks vitality, inspiration, or wonder. I know that some of them think this, and I once thought it myself; yet I can't help but ask in response to that, "Isn't reality enough?"

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