Behold, We're Nothing, Man
And yet, at the same time, we're everything.
Take a moment to peruse this image courtesy of the Hubble Heritage Project, who is mapping the cosmos so we don’t have to. Dubbed the “Mystic Mountain,” what you see is a pillar of gas and dust three light-years tall.
Yes, light-years. I cribbed MM’s description right out of the March-April 2013 edition of the University of Chicago Alumni Magazine. Dr. Edwin Hubble, father of extragalactic astronomy, was a Chicago alumnus who, by the way, happened to have been a skilled forward on the Maroon’s basketball team in the early part of the 20th century. A few years after I took Michael Turner’s cosmology class at the University, astronaut John Grunsfield flew into space with a century-old ball that Hubble himself had dribbled and tossed in a 1909 victory against Indiana University. Rumor has it that Grunsfield placed it inside a time capsule at the Hubble station.
How intriguingly do our various worlds and lives blend during the short interval of time we spend here on the earth.
Though absent from this life since 1953, Hubble’s work lives on through his sustainable efforts, a now-ubiquitous term I’m afraid we no longer absorb quite as we should. Here I mean that his life and work is eternal through his passion and drive to understand and through his ability to question himself and others. In so doing, Hubble helped the scientific community to relax its collective grip on what it once thought to be scientifically true (“Nubulae? …..No! Those are actually galaxies!”), thereby opening a world of mystic mountains and more up to them – to us.
That spirit continues to drive the aging Hubble telescope as it hobbles along its orbit, a tired machine that still forwards its images decades after launch, each one enabling us to see new things and think new thoughts.
As a non-scientist, my insights into all this are purely philosophic. Here goes:
- This business of anything being “three light-years tall” upends every notion we have regarding what time is. We earthlings make ourselves at home with a single definition of a concept replete with other possibilities.
- That pillar of gas and dust is something real… a mystic and other-worldly mountain. We humans are a bunch of molecules too—carbon and all kinds of particles bouncing around. ( As we learned at Woodstock, “We are stardust…we are golden…”) We measure life in years, and yet—does the stuff within us that we can’t measure, like consciousness, exist in light-years or in perpetuity?
- Dr. Hubble still sends love letters and awe reports in fresh images of startling beauty thanks to…
- Those who share his vision and enable it to carry on through time and space.
- …and also by those of us who crowd together around a picture like this one to simply behold that which is real, that we can’t see without help from others. Having witnessed, we then allow our collective jaws to drop admitting how great it is. We do this together.
I love the Hubble story. With our eyes looking upward, not at heaven-as-concept, but at what is actually up there, we enter into limitless worlds of wonder where all manner of boundless activity – and our own imagining-- can happen.
We spin new stories about places beyond our experience where history and future neatly intersect. The stories mirror us, even as firmly bound in the here-and-now as we appear to be, because that place where past and future collide is exactly where we find our own selves. It’s the point from which our own story unfolds: the present. It’s all we have and all we need.