I read the other day that the observable universe contains a hundred billion galaxies “with more stars than our beaches have grains of sand.” For some reason, I find that comforting. Of course, it makes me feel puny and insignificant. But it also puts my ego and its worries into perspective. In the presence of 100 billions galaxies, the entity which I affectionately refer to as “I” is a particle of astonishing triviality.
But that’s not cause for despair. It liberates me from the chimeras of success and failure. What does it matter if I never win the Nobel Prize or a blue ribbon at the Vinland Fair, whether I am a VIP or a nobody? In this perspective, Shakespeare, Napoleon and Lady Gaga are nobodies. “Reputation” is a figment. The graveyards are filled with unvisited monuments and the libraries are filled with unread books. All the problems that bedevil us will run their course and get swallowed up in the sea of time. Nothing amounts to a hill of beans.
A hundred billion galaxies… That’s a lot of real estate. It makes the idea of owning a lot in a subdivision seem quaint. As for Russia, America, China, Germany and all the other “sovereign nations,” what reality do they have in the company of the Virgo Cluster, the Fornax Cluster and HCG87, 400 million light years away from here? Even “The World” sounds like a bloated conceit. How can any of its specks of turf be worth fighting over when there’s entire galaxies out there for every man, woman and child?
Using remarkable new telescopes equipped with exotic digital cameras, “astronomers are looking so far out in space and back in time that they’re seeing to the infancy of the universe, when stars … had not yet formed.” I can’t understand what that means, but it sounds like a stimulus for wonder. Looking up at the night sky ought to inspire us with awe. But most of us go through life scrutinizing our shoes while we fret over the tempests of our busy little lives: the flat tires, the meetings and appointments, the burned roasts. The kingdom that sprawls between our ears makes the empires of Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan seem like postage stamps. A little indigestion is more momentous to the individual than a Hundred Years War.
The sad truth is that, even if everyone had his own galaxy, we’d still find it intolerable if someone had a slightly larger one. We’d start coveting our neighbor’s galaxy and we’d probably discover pretexts for judging him to be “inferior.” Before you know, it we’d be involved in inter-galactic war. Something in our genes makes it impossible for any of us to have “enough.”
I had an electrician over the other day and when he was finished with his work he looked around our hillside and observed that it would be a nice spot for him to set up his telescope. It turned out that he was an amateur astronomer who belongs to a local society of star gazers. Apparently, there are thousands of his type all over the world, some of whom have made significant contributions to science.
I thought it was commendable that he spent his leisure time gazing at the stars rather than playing video games, screaming his head off at demolition derbies or cheering contestants on American Idol. He was a man, I surmised, who’d escaped the prison of self-importance, who knew precisely where he stood in the limitless, incomprehensible, but not uninteresting void.
— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.