Every now and again I learn something new about the Universe. Most of the time we hardly ever give a thought to a mystery and a reality comparable only to the mystery and reality of life. We are reminded of the latter all the time : a new baby in the family, a relative who dies, even the birth of kittens and puppies and the fading of flowers. Life and death are ever present, visible realities. The night-sky, the moon, the stars and planets we cannot even identify, just about exhaust what we experience of the Universe. Lest I forget, I keep reminding myself of the facts and try to keep up with the latest discoveries :
- Our Solar System has eight (or nine) planets spinning around the Sun : Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (and perhaps Pluto). But the galaxy which is ours, the Milky Way, contains 300, 000, 000,000 such Suns or stars. And the Milky Way is just one galaxy among another 2,000, 000, 000, 000 in the Universe. That means that there are probably as many as 600, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 stars in the Universe and as least as many planets.
- The Milky Way is 100,000 light-years wide. Almost in our backyard, at 39 light-years, a star has recently been discovered and baptized “Trappist 1”. It has seven planets, which we in our little solar system call exoplanets. Twenty years ago we did not know exoplanets existed. The only planets we knew were our own eight or nine. Today we have identified 5000 of them ! And it would seem that three of Trappist 1’s planets are likely one day to be shown to possess the conditions necessary for life.
Statistics like these may blow our minds, but at the end of the day moving forward, we battle on, preoccupied with surviving and if possible enjoying life, and never give the Universe a thought. But it is THERE, and its very existence has always made people wonder WHY it is there. Religions have a ready, facile answer in the form of creation myths of all sorts. But it’s pretty hard to believe that any of the multitude of “gods” we have created in the Middle East, in Africa or in the jungles of South America or New Guinea, had anything to do with the “Big Bang”. Rationalists suggest that the Universe has neither a Creator nor a purpose. It just IS.
We are at the dawn of an age of discovery of the Universe and of exploration of our own puny – enormous ! – solar system. Rather than regret that I won’t be around to enjoy either, I am happy to have come onto the scene when mankind is discovering just how astronomically vast and challenging our world is. I have enjoyed the Preface, but I will never read the chapters soon to be written in “Great Leaps for Mankind”.