During a three-month period, from September 2003 to January 2004, scientists operating the Hubble Space Telescope turned their satellite’s lens towards a tiny patch of black sky in the southern hemisphere, in a constellation called Fornax. This small area of the heavens (no bigger than the size of a fruit fly held at a meter’s distance) was chosen because it appeared to have very few local stars, whose brightness would ruin a long camera exposure, and the scientists wanted to take a very long exposure: something in in the order of 277 hours, or 11.5 days of exposure time. The image they produced is called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, and it is almost too astounding to comprehend.
Here, in one picture are ten thousand dots of light, almost all of which are not stars. Each is a galaxy, like our own Milky Way, and each contains, on average, well over 200 billion individual stars. And, because the galaxies in this picture are not equidistant from us but strewn and stretching away from Earth over billions of lightyears, we are also looking back in time, the most remote ones appearing in this photograph as they were soon after the beginning of our universe, just 400 – 800 million years after the Big Bang. To put that in perspective, if the age of our universe (13.75 billion years) was seen as only one 24-hour day beginning at midnight, the furthest, oldest galaxies in this photograph would have formed at 12:38am.
The indescribable immensity of matter and energy, of space and time captured in this photograph grinds into gear-lock the human capacity for astonishment. Especially when one considers just how small and insignificant a snapshot this is in comparison to the cosmos as a whole. It is estimated that the number of galaxies in the known universe may be somewhere around two trillion. Two trillion galaxies, each containing over 200 billion stars. And, it is likely that many of the stars, if not nearly all, have planets orbiting around them. For, in the short three decades since astronomers detected the first evidence of a ‘exoplanet’, a planet circling a star other than our own Sun, (the first was discovered in 1992), there have been 4000 confirmed, with thousands of other detections waiting for verification. The kind of exponential numbers that are needed to count these galaxies and stars and planets is so cognitively numbing as to float out of reach of meaning and impact altogether. And this is just the visible universe. Scientists now generally agree that we are looking at only a miniscule amount of the evidence. Our observations and the physics suggest that these heavenly objects comprise an almost negligible portion, perhaps just 4% of what’s really out there – that most of the matter and energy in the universe is not in a visible form that can be captured by our cameras but is, instead, ‘dark’ matter and ‘dark’ energy, deducible only indirectly through their effects on visible matter.
Although I am attempting to do so, I really have no illusions that these meager words will create the impact of the sublime or the incredulity necessary to put all this into perspective. I, myself, am often just stupefied. Yet, in my deepest contemplation of the vastness of our universe, there is something that arises that makes the whole picture almost trivial in comparison: that is the realization that in all of this, in all this cosmic vastness, with more stars out there in the heavens than there are grains of sand on the entire surface of the earth, that it should be that circling just one of those inconsequential grains, on a ridiculously insignificant rocky planet – a mere dust-mote speck of almost nothingness, a self-organizing process called life evolved and, through that process, a conscious awareness arose: a feeling of being that could experience its world as from a conscious, subjective center. And stepping back as observer, this conscious center could take in and stand in humbled awe at the grandeur of this universe and, using its intellect and symbolic language attempt to figure out why its own subjectivity and all this vast cosmos should ever be at all.
For what is more incredible? That such a material universe as this should exist? That it should be vast beyond comprehension? That something called life should be part of its natural evolution? Or, that consciousness should arise and not only register it, but feel itself to be other than it; to stand before it, behold it as something apart from itself – and be absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty of it all?