RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–When beset by life’s myriad troubles and distractions, it helps to take the long view.
In this case, the really, really long view: 14 billion light years long.
That’s the approximate size/age of the visible universe from our vantage point, according to current scientific consensus. How many stars shine out there? “Billions and billions,” as the late astronomer Carl Sagan used to say.
More specifically, NASA estimates that if the 100 billion or so galaxies thought to exist contain about 100 billion stars each, the number of stars in the universe is about 10 thousand billion billion. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 — more than the number of individual grains of sand on all the world’s beaches.
For a humbling visual perspective of our own little sliver of the cosmos, check the “Powers of Ten” online tutorial offered by Florida State University’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (at http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/primer/java/scienceopticsu/powersof10/index.html).
A “photo” series starts out 10 million light years away and zooms in toward our solar system in decreasing orders of magnitude. At maximum distance, the majestic Milky Way — which would take 100 millennia to cross in a starship traveling at light speed — appears as a bright splotch among thousands of other splotches. Far out on one of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, our own sun doesn’t become visible until we’re one measly light year out. The earth becomes a tiny dot at 10 million kilometers. The magnifications continue all the way into the subatomic structure of an oak leaf, where quarks dwell. They look remarkably like the galaxies at 10 million light years out.
That’s just the immediate neighborhood. Visit an even more amazing web site, “An Atlas of the Universe” (http://www.anzwers.org/free/universe/index.html), and navigate maps of galactic superclusters bunched together in great sheets stretching across billions of light years. Behold the Hubble Deep Field Image, a slice of sky in Ursa Major photographed over 10 days in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope. It reveals the light of remote galaxies as they appeared as long as 10 billion years ago. And bear in mind: We’re only talking about “visible” space.
“The light from more distant objects simply has not had time to reach us,” observes British astrophysicist Richard Powell, creator of the site. “The geometry of the universe suggests that it may have an infinite size and that it will expand forever. Even if the universe is not infinite, our visible universe must be a minute speck in a much larger totality.”
To many scientists and skeptics, and some unsteady believers, such vastness suggests a God-less cosmos — or one ruled by an impassive, clockwork intelligence unconcerned with us and the mote of dust we call home.
“Religion used to teach that the earth was the center of the universe, the single most important place that God created,” crows Adrian Barnett, an energetic exponent of atheism. “We think we are special, and that supremely powerful beings look after us. We are not special. We are simply the result of a (probably very common) chemical accident billions of years ago, in a place where the conditions were right for life to flourish.”
King David thought differently. As a youth, he probably spent a lot of time watching the night sky as he tended his father’s sheep. He must have beheld thousands of stars — an intricate tapestry seldom seen by residents of our modern, light-drenched urban world.
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth, Who hast displayed Thy splendor above the heavens!” David wrote in one of his greatest songs of praise and awe. “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, And dost crown him with glory and majesty!” (Psalm 8:1,3-5, NASB).
While teaching a Sunday School class for middle-schoolers recently, I asked them how the size of God’s universe made them feel in light of David’s words.
“Small!” blurted one.
“Loved,” said another, more quietly.
If the God of all time and space personally entered human history 2,000 years ago, as a bright star shone over David’s city, do we not owe Him all we have and are — until His name is called majestic among all the peoples of the earth?
Erich Bridges is a senior writer at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. His column appears twice monthly in Baptist Press.