Friday, August 3, 2012

Are we so alone?

It's September 2003. The Hubble Space Telescope is pointed at a particularly dark region of space near the constellation Orion. It takes four months for the telescope to capture enough photons to make a usable image of this unusually dark region of sky. The orbiting telescope is the photons' final destination on a 13,000,000,000 year journey. When those photons left their individual sources, our galaxy, the Milky Way, was just beginning to form. Our own star, the Sun, and home planet, Earth, were about 8,500,000,000 years away from formation.
It is hard for us to fathom numbers so large or distances so great. The speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second. At that speed, it takes just over eight minutes for light leaving the sun to reach earth. Some of you may have a car with mileage near the 186,000 mark. Imagine racking up that mileage in one second. In just over eight minutes you could rack up somewhere around 93 million miles on your car if it could travel at the speed of light. As of 2010 the world record holding car for mileage had nearly 3 million miles on it. That car was purchased in 1966. At that rate it would take another 1,320 years to reach the 93 million-mile mark. Light is fast. 13 billion light years is an unimaginably far distance. If light can travel 93 million miles in eight minutes, imagine how far it could travel in 13 billion years.
Now let's think about something small. The area of the sky that the Hubble Space Telescope photographed was 1/13,000,000th of the total area of sky. Imagine trying to view the night sky through a straw held at arm's length and you might get some idea of the area of sky photographed. This small area of the sky near the constellation Orion was chosen as a target because of how dark this region is. With most telescopes the only thing that shows up here is the blackness of space. Understand that the image captured is not unique to this area of the sky. A similar image could have been captured if the telescope had been pointed anywhere else in the sky, provided the light pollution from our own galaxy was not blocking the view. So what did the HST see?



Galaxies. Lots and lots of galaxies. Here is a link to a larger image on Wikipedia:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Hubble_ultra_deep_field_high_rez_edit1.jpg

*note that you can click on the picture to make it larger, and you should!

Before you dismiss this picture as an interesting curiosity I hope you take a couple of moments to ponder what is actually pictured here. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, an ordinary barred spiral galaxy, is somewhere around 100,000 light years across. That means that light takes about 100,000 years to cross the diameter of our galaxy. Our galaxy contains somewhere between 100,000,000,000 and 400,000,000,000 stars, of which, the Sun is only one average yellow dwarf star. Our galactic neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, is roughly 220,000 light years in diameter and may contain up to 1,000,000,000,000 stars.
It is at this point that I have to stop and wonder. Are we really alone? Do we inhabit the only planet in the entire universe that harbors life? Looking at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image above, I personally would have to answer, "probably not."
The Hubble Ultra Deep Field image is estimated to contain somewhere around 10,000 galaxies. When you stop and think that within any 1/13,000,000th of the area of the sky you are likely to find somewhere around 10,000 galaxies, a profound sense of smallness should begin to well up within you. We inhabit one planet, orbiting one star, out of a few hundred billion stars, in one galaxy, in a universe that contains hundreds of billions, if not trillions, if not infinite galaxies.
Who are we to stomp our feet and declare that we are unique? We haven't even made it to Mars yet.
The Earth is full of people who will tell you what to believe about God, about religion, about everything. But, when you look at a photograph like this one, all of that noisy chatter seems to melt away. Looking at this picture gives me hope. It also strips away any religious pride I might have. We have only scratched the surface of who or what God truly is.
I was raised to believe that we are the only "people" God has ever created. But that seems like such a narrow interpretation of the Bible now. How many other stars, in our own galaxy or others, have planets orbiting stars with advanced life forms declaring that they are only living thing in the Universe, that God loves them above all else? It just seems silly when you look at a picture like this. Surely civilizations rise and fall across our own galaxy. Surely every galaxy in this picture supports some form of life, or many.
If you do not personally believe this to be so, you are welcome to your opinion. In fact, there is not yet one shred of evidence that life does, in fact, exist outside of this tiny planet called Earth. But let me make one thing clear. If we are alone, then we are so utterly alone, to a point that we have a loneliness that is without remedy for all time. And for those who would stand up and say that we are not alone because we have God, I would ask a simple question. Why would God create such a grand universe, that exist at such a scale it can scarcely be comprehended, and yet, only place life on one small rock so insignificant that it barely registers even at the scale of our own solar system, let alone the scale of our galaxy or universe?
It is easy to pretend that other populated worlds do not exist. There are only a few thousand stars visible in the night sky. And in populated areas, where the majority of the world's population lives, the number of visible stars probably ranges from a few hundred to twenty or so. It is no wonder then that our thoughts rarely turn to what lies beyond our own atmosphere. Prior to a hundred years or so ago, when our skies were not clouded with light pollution, the stars were visible to all. Yet, our technology was not so advanced as it is now. Long ago, when people looked at the heavens they wondered what those tiny points of lights were. Now we know. They are stars, like our own star, the Sun. It was only about a hundred years ago that we realized our galaxy is not the only galaxy. There are countless others. We know that now. Knowledge advances.
Is there any reason why we should not advance as well?
I am confident that one day our technology will advance to the point where we can finally answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe. When that question is answered, it will answer a fundamental part of the question of who we ourselves are.