Have you been following the recent discoveries regarding the Universe? I call to your attention the recent series on PBS, “The Universe” and the recent “Scientific American” feature article on the inevitable, future destruction of the Milky Way Galaxy. Here is my take as a rank amateur but one who has been obsessed with space and the Universe ever since I was about eight when my 10-year-old neighbor witnessed a flying saucer land in his back yard, with seared dirt and burnt leaves to prove it.
We are living in a golden age for astronomy. Only in the last couple of decades or so have instruments been available to allow us to see for the first time much more of the vast expanse of space than was previously thought possible. These are some of the highlights:
- The Big Bang started it all “only” about 13.8 billion years ago spewing out cosmic dust that due to the force of gravity resulted in the formation of stars and planets. This is not news and now enjoys almost universal consensus among scientists.
- Our star, the Sun, was formed out of the cosmic dust about 4.6 billion years ago along with eight or nine planets (if you count Pluto) circling around it.
- The Sun is a middle-sized star and part of the Milky Way Galaxy, a run-of-the-mill galaxy. On a clear night with no ambient lights, we can see with the naked eye about 2,500 stars. Scientists now believe that there are between two and four billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. They also believe that there are between two and three trillion galaxies.
- The small, blue planet we call Earth is about halfway through its life expectancy. In about five billion years the Sun will start to expand into a white giant, expanding beyond the orbit of the planet Earth and evaporating our planet, before it runs out of fuel and becomes a red dwarf, destroying all the other planets in our solar system with it.
- Powerful satellite telescopes like the Hubble and other super telescopes on the ground now enable scientists to be able to discern whether other stars also have planets and solar systems. So far—and they are just getting started on this—they have not found a star without a planet. The number is now something like 3,800 discovered planets or “exoplanets.” More exoplanet discoveries are being added all the time. While we know so much more now than we did only a few decades ago, there is so much more we do not know or understand. Scientists have observed black holes at the center of galaxies, which provide the gravitation to keep the stars circling around them, but there is so much more to learn about black holes. And the biggest challenge is to understand how and why the Universe is expanding at accelerating speeds when one would think that the gravity of black holes and the gravity caused by the mass of stars would be pulling the celestial bodies in the Universe closer together. Scientists have postulated the existence of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which are believed to be mysterious forces in the Universe. Dark energy, they believe, accounts for the accelerating speed of the expanding Universe. They think these strange, invisible, and unmeasurable forces must be present somehow, but so far, they remain a mystery.
- It is common for galaxies to collide and for a larger galaxy to take over a smaller one resulting in a cataclysmic cosmic event. Our much larger, sister galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, will swallow up the Milky Way in about five billion years. But that is ok since our Sun will have become a red dwarf by then, and the Earth will have been long gone.
- Scientists also postulate that at some point the Universe will come to end. This will happen in about a trillion years when all the helium and hydrogen, the fuel of the stars, will have run out. Some also have postulated, however, that what we call our Universe is simply one of an infinite number of universes in a Multiverse.
- And finally, the distances between stars and galaxies are so great that we humans on Earth will never be able to know or experience being on these celestial bodies (beyond perhaps some in our solar system) unless we can somehow figure out how to travel at or near the speed of light or even many times greater. How likely is that?
So, what do you make of all this and how does all this affect your understanding of the world? Why should you even care? There is surely enough to worry about right here on Earth.
And what about your religious beliefs? Where does God fit into the picture? What is your understanding of what the word “God” means anyway? Where in the Universe is heaven? Could it be hidden in dark matter? And if there is nothing important going on anywhere else in the vast Universe, what was the point of creating all this “stuff” in the first place—the trillions upon trillions of stars and planets?
Also, science tells us that if a planet has the basic elements in place—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen—and if it is rocky, and if it is large enough so that gravity can hold its atmosphere in place, and if it is located in the goldilocks zone—not too hot and not too cold—and if water appears, then there is a pretty good chance that nature will do its thing, and given time—a few billion years here and a few billion there– life of some sort will appear and evolve. Maybe not life that looks like us but certainly life. Afterall, we now know that there is virtually no place on Earth where life does not exist. There are large sea worms living miles deep under the ocean where no light appears, and there is life in the pits of active volcanoes. Life can form anywhere if the conditions are right.
And what are the chances that there are planets in the Universe that might meet the threshold for life to exist and where life—possibly advanced life—does exist?
I would put my money on one hundred percent.
The point is, of course, that we don’t know definitive answers to these questions, and we never will. This is where the questions asked by science and those asked by religion converge.
Some people are bothered by these questions and by the (sometimes partial) answers that science has provided, some of which would appear to be at odds with religious belief. Some people fear that even asking these questions risks falling into despair. Without God how could any of this have happened? Certainly, God must be behind all of this, they argue. The alternative surely would be atheism and resignation that the universe is purposeless and without meaning.
My own response is that it is time for a little humility on the part of us humans. I recall the great Carly Simon song, “You’re So Vain.” We homo sapiens on the planet Earth think we are so important and so smart that we must know all the answers. Please. We are a flawed species that has slogged our way to the top of the food chain and yet are now poised to destroy the very thing that has sustained us.
We need to accept that we will never know or understand the complete picture. We need to accept that this is ok. This should not pose a threat to a fundamental faith that meaning and purpose in life are real and attainable. We humans are by design hard-wired to ask the question of why and hard-wired to seek meaning on a deeper level that we call spiritual. Some of us are a lot better at this than others. Organized religions have existed for centuries to provide structure for encouraging and facilitating our connections with the spiritual dimension of human life. They provide pathways. As I have said many times: One destination many pathways. Christianity, my religious tradition, points to a pathway of love of neighbor, forgiveness, reconciliation and, I believe, justice and peace on our small planet. This is enough for me; and who knows, just like the scientists who have postulated that dark energy must exist because without it, the universe would not be expanding at accelerating speeds, could one not also argue, that the spiritual dimension of human existence must be real because without it, we would not be fully human?