This is a talk I gave at Minneapolis Friends Meeting on August 19, 2012.
I’ve always loved looking at the night sky. I remember as a kid I used to lay in the grass in our back yard on summer nights, staring at the stars. Looking at all that vastness always filled me with wonder. Sometimes I’d get a tingly sense of vertigo – feeling as if my connection to the earth’s surface was tenuous and at any moment I might fall into outer space.
I read a lot of science writing. I’m especially drawn to articles about cosmology – the origins of the universe. The current most widely accepted story goes something like this:
The universe began about 14 billion years ago as a tiny point. All the stuff of the universe was somehow crammed into this cosmic egg, including the matter that makes up our Earth, and own bodies. One thing I like about this image is that, in a sense, we were all there at the very beginning.
And then this baby universe began expanding. Really fast. Faster than the speed of light. You’ve probably heard that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That’s true, as far as we know. But we’re not talking here about stuff traveling through space. We’re talking about space itself expanding. And space is still expanding today – in fact, the expansion seems to be accelerating.
If you have a hard time visualizing what it means for empty space to expand, you’re not alone.
We don’t know why the expansion of the universe is accelerating. We don’t know why it began expanding in the first place. We don’t know what happened before the expansion began, or if that is even a meaningful question.
From there, it only gets weirder. According to some theories, what we view as the entire universe, in all its vastness, is only one bubble in a “multiverse” – where this multiverse is like a foaming root beer float, each bubble being a separate universe, and new universes constantly being born. We can never see into the other bubbles; they might have entirely different laws of physics. Time could even run in the opposite direction.
These ideas are not proven “fact”, but neither are they just fantasy or sci fi. They’re put forth by serious scientists, who observe things in the real world that don’t seem to make any sense in our ordinary view of how things work.
But let’s step back from these bizarre models of multiple universes and so on, and consider what we can observe just by looking at the night sky.
In 1996, scientists pointed the Hubble space telescope at a tiny patch of sky near the Big Dipper that appeared to be totally empty – earth-based observatories couldn’t see anything there at all. If you imagine a grain of sand held out at arm’s length, that’s about how much of the sky this patch covered. They kept the Hubble watching that bit of sky continuously for 10 days to collect any feeble rays of light that might be there. And when they finally looked at the image that resulted, it showed over 3,000 galaxies just in that one little sliver of apparently empty space. 3,000 galaxies – with each galaxy containing billions of stars like our sun.
Where is God in all of this? I don’t know who, or what, God is. But a couple of things are clear. It’s clear that the universe is far more immense, and much, much stranger, than our human minds are able to perceive or comprehend. And it’s clear that although science has made amazing advances, so far it offers no definitive answer to the biggest questions: how it all began, and why we are here.
The writer Ray Bradbury died recently, and I took the opportunity to watch an interview he had given several years ago. Bradbury raised the question of why we are here, and he answered it this way:
“There’s no use having a universe, and billions of stars, there’s no use having a planet Earth, if there’s no one here to see it. You are the audience. You are here to witness, and to celebrate. You’ve got a lot to see, and a lot to celebrate.
God cries out to be saved. Whatever God is. It’s all mysterious. But we are here to be the audience to the miraculous. We are privileged.
You’re going to be alive once. You’re never coming back. Think of that. You’ve got this one chance to pay back.”
People often say that considering the vastness of the sky makes them feel small and insignificant. For me, it has exactly the opposite effect – because I realize I’m part of the universe, not separate from it. We are all connected. And we are all much, much bigger than we imagine.