It is amazing that many people are not amazed at the immensity of the Universe and its literally astronomical dimensions. Some of us need glasses to correct our myopia. But just about all of us are astronomically short-sighted when we look at the night-sky, with or without a telescope, or read about the numbers (“figures” in English) that fill astronomers’ descriptions of the world of which we, and even our planet, are only infinitesimal parts.
Just a few, mind-blowing examples :
- It takes me twenty hours, stopovers excluded, to fly from France to Australia. 18,000 kilometers. Fifty years ago we began flying to – and, fortunately, back from – the Moon, 386,000 kms away. Soon we will attempt to fly to, and return from, Mars. The Sun, our own unreachable star, is a little farther out : 150,000,000 kms. Already we are at a point where figures become meaningless. Think of some place 150 kms from your home – and then imagine having to do the trip one million times. Man, that’s a long haul.
- Earth is one of the Sun’s planets. Some of the others are smaller, some a lot bigger, all of them – like the lover of the lady with the yellow ribbon around her neck – far, FAR away. Mars is in our backyard. Pluto is forty times the distance between us and the Sun.
- We speak of distances in space in terms of light-years. From our school-days we may recall Einstein’s formula, E equals m multiplied by c squared, and even remember that E stands for Energy, m for Mass, and c for Celerity, the speed … of light ! But 300,000 kms/SECOND (!), compared with the already impressive speed of our space-ships (56,000 kms/HOUR (!!)), makes us sound like space-snails. That sunlight you are enjoying took more than eight minutes to get here. For us to get to the Sun – if we were crazy enough to want to try – would take us over 393 years.
Anyhow, let’s keep out of the Sun and settle – if possible – on Mars. Tests have been performed on volunteers to see how they would stand up to an eight-month trip and several years – to make the trip worthwhile – of confinement, as well as the stress and isolation from Earth contact (forty minutes back and forth between radio-communications), and the total lack of a safety-net if something went wrong. Now consider going even further, let’s say to the edge of the visible Universe (nothing tried, nothing gained). The distance is at least 90,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles. But that’s just OUR Universe. Astronomers consider there may be a lot of others.
The Milky Way, our galaxy, was believed, just a century ago, to be the only galaxy there was. We now know that there are thousands of billions in the visible Universe, all desperately rushing away from each other to avoid collapsing into a Black Hole.
I could go on. But the point is, in the context of these Reflections, not the numbers but Napoleon, and his permanently pertinent question : “Et Dieu dans tout cela ?” (“And God in all that ?”). The scientist Laplace famously replied : “Sire, God is not included in my hypotheses”.
Many people, aware of the beauty, grandeur and immensity of the Universe, see it as evidence of God as Creator and of His infinite power and intelligence. Some nombrilistic and credulous earthlings even suggest that all this is part of a divine plan, of which WE are the center ! There is one fatal flaw in such self-centered, wishful thinking. We, not just as mortal individuals but as a species, will inevitably disappear, to become, like so many of our companion species on Earth, extinct, like our Sun, because precisely of its own extinction – unless of course we jump the gun and pollute our planet to death before then. The Sun has five billion years left, which means that our Universe will have had a pretty good run, 18 billions years’ existence. After that, the party’s over.
We may not have to wait that long. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change five years ago modified its 2007 estimate of a two feet rise in sea-level by 2099 to three feet. More recent studies suggest that even a 8.9 feet rise is “physically plausible”. We are told that if all the ice in Antartica melts, the sea will rise 71 meters ! However long it takes for seawater’s thermal expansion and the melting of land-based ice-sheets and glaciers to flood the Earth, it would seem that our planet will one day be a worldwide Atlantis. “Waterworld” will no longer be just the name of aquatic parks in the Costa Brava or of a Kevin Costner movie. In the meantime, let us enjoy – for as long as we have left (personally and globably) – what is still a minuscule, astronomically insignificant but wonderful world.
P.S. I wouldn’t count on either a modern Noah’s Ark or a Cosmic Exodus to a backup exoplanet. As Johnny Cash sang : “How high’s the water, Momma ? She said it’s six-feet high and risin’ “.