Comfort in the Skies
For many years now, I have had a minor obsession with all things outer space: astrophysics, the night sky, stars, planets, nebulas, constellations, solar systems, galaxies, you name it. I am captivated by the science of astronomy and pictures of celestial bodies. They are, without a doubt, the most epic images ever captured by man. But while many of my friends probably already know of my extraterrestrial interests, they might not know exactly why I am so drawn to it… Why I savor every chance to gaze upon its grandeur and find no term too dramatic to describe it.
Well, here is why: besides being strikingly beautiful, it gives me comfort by reminding me that we are but an insignificant speck in a vast, unfathomable universe. To say that feeling inconsequential is comforting might seem a bit counterintuitive, but that sort of contradiction is exactly how life feels to me.
A Universe Of Harmonious Contradictions
For one thing, it means that our trivial little problems here don’t actually mean much in the grand scheme. That’s comforting. It also implies that with billions of galaxies out there, we very likely are not alone. We’ll probably never talk to any other intelligent life forms (at least not in our lifetimes), but that’s still comforting.
The little teeny specks of light in the night sky are like each of us. It’s true that one little bitty star or distant speck of a galaxy doesn’t make much of a difference to you or me on a daily basis. If one of them disappeared, we probably wouldn’t notice. We’d go about our business as usual, and it wouldn’t seem like the sky had changed much at all. And yet, if a speck disappeared, the sky simply wouldn’t be the same. It may not change the life of a chef in Idaho or a doctor in Malaysia, but it would be different (and it would make a huge difference to the little specks close to it). And the more specks that disappeared from our sky, the more noticeable it would be. The only way for the night sky to be a true window into the universe is if every little speck of light is there, doing its part to illuminate it. In that way, it’s very much like all of us little teeny specks running around on the Earth, and that’s comforting.
But sometimes stars do die, because that’s what happens. In fact, some of the stars we see actually don’t exist anymore. They’re just the reflection of a memory that may have been erased from its little spot in the universe before humans even walked the Earth. But even though it’s gone, it’s still there. The reflection—the memory we can see with our own eyes—really exists. We may be glimpsing the past, but we’re glimpsing something very real that has lived on and done us the favor of lending its glow to the dark dome above our heads. Somewhere in distant space, photons that bounced off of your body are flying through a near-vacuum at 186,282 miles per second, just waiting to be seen by anything that will look at them. There will be an image of you, doing what you do and experiencing the many moments of your life, forever weaving between galaxies in perpetuity throughout the universe. And someday the atoms in your body may be part of a new star or planet or galaxy, and at the very least the molecules of air and water in your body at any given time will also be in every single other person’s body at some point in time (and vice versa). It's a form of cosmic immortality and interconnectivity. That’s comforting.
And even though each of these billions of specks in the sky seem insignificant, even though they are just one among so many, and even though they seem so tiny, they’re really not. If you traveled millions of light years away you’d see that what looked like a grain of dust to us was actually a vast galaxy containing billions of stars, planets, solar systems, asteroids, comets and moons. If you zoomed in on one of those billions of stars, you’d find that it was a massive behemoth of energy, far bigger than our planet, bursting with incredible power and beaming with brilliant light. If you got really close to that star, you’d find that it was made of gazillions of atoms, interacting with one another in a lively mating dance that mirrors the one which eventually gave birth to our own planet (and us) billions of years ago. If you looked closer still, you’d see that these tiny atoms were made up of even more minuscule things like protons, which were themselves made up of even smaller particles like quarks. And you’d see that on the most inconceivably small of scales the laws of physics, space, and time as we know them cease to exist and the quantum world follows rules so strange and mind-bogglingly unbelievable you couldn’t help but concede that just about anything might be possible if we keep looking hard enough. And these inconceivably small things are integral to how the inconceivably large things exist and interact with one another.
The Cosmic Symphony
And then you’ll also see how much more there is to explore and learn and discover, and how many things are worth pursuing with giddy fascination. Suddenly, you’ll realize that the itty bitty particles in your body aren’t so unlike the itty bitty specks of light in the sky, which aren’t so unlike the itty bitty specks of flesh walking around on one particular, conveniently-placed planet in this solar system. And all the contradiction of big and small, meaningful and insignificant, comes together in a kind of beautiful uncertainty that is at the very heart of what life is all about. And that’s most definitely comforting.
Microscopic particles humming together in a quantum symphony. Planets and stars dancing around each other in a cosmic symphony, in which Earth is just a note. Our lives notes in the symphony of humanity. And good or bad, that melody simply would not be the same without any one of those notes. That’s comforting. And that’s why I like to stare at the night sky, knowing that the little things matter and the big things are really no big deal; knowing that feeling inconsequential is actually a gateway to feeling a part of something bigger than my own dreams; above all, knowing that the stars aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
Note: The picture above is part of a deep field image captured by the Hubble telescope. It represents about one 24-millionth of the entire sky; every speck is a galaxy.