That’s about the size of the bit of sky NASA’s new James Webb Space telescope examined this week. What it found, in brilliant images, were countless galaxies containing countless stars — images whose light has taken between thousands and billions of earth years to reach the telescope’s lens, which itself is 1 million miles from earth. A tiny speck of sky containing an unfathomable array of stars and planets — if nothing else, that ought to bring some perspective to life.
Or is that really true? Certainly, an infinite universe should lay our hubris to rest. But perhaps we can gain a better perspective on the significance of life by viewing the spirit of humanity around us.
Last week, a car containing three girls plunged off a boat launch and into a river in Mississippi late at night. A 16-year-old boy nearby jumped in and saved them all, including a police officer who had come to help but found himself drowning.
The boy, Corion Evans, told MSNBC he heard the girls screaming “Help!” He saved them one at a time from the sinking car, swimming 20 feet back and forth, ignoring his own fatigue. The police officer who showed up was struggling because the girl he was working to save was panicking, forcing him under water. The teenage boy managed to get them both toward shore, as well.
“I was just like, ‘I can’t let none of these folks die. They need to get out the water,’” he told Atlanta Black Star.
In his essay, “the vastness of the universe and man’s seeming insignificance,” Chris Van Allsburg, a teacher of apologetics and ethics, said we make a mistake when we meld mankind into the cosmos, as if the two were a merging monolith. Don’t look into the universe and see humans as equal to the elements. Instead, consider what kind of beings humans are. “Do the planets make plans, write poetry, sing songs, put flowers in vases of crystal?”
Do they jump into a dark river at the risk of their own lives and save four people from drowning?
About 35 years ago, I interviewed James C. Fletcher as he began his second term as NASA administrator. During our brief talk, he defended the need to put actual humans in space, rather than relying solely on unmanned spacecraft, because of what he called the spiritual experiences, the ability to see the world beyond its artificial borders, that many astronauts experience.
“It seems that when people get up into space, they become one-worldly,” he told me. “There is a profound need for people of all professions to explore space so they can describe their experiences.”
I thought about that interview several months ago when actor William Shatner returned from a brief trip aboard a Blue Origin spacecraft. He said he couldn’t stop crying after the experience. “It’s impossible to describe because the English language, any language, doesn’t have a frame of reference, so you can only infer,” he told Time magazine. He added that he now feels a tremendous need to save the planet from pollution and other things that could destroy it.
Carl Sagan once described earth as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Nick Hughes of University College Dublin put it in further perspective. If you traveled the speed of light, it would take 100,000 years to cross the Milky Way, but that is only one of 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe.
He wrote that in an essay titled, “Do we matter in the cosmos?”
Pessimists look at the vastness of space and see despair. Nothing really matters. We are each, as Shakespeare put it, “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I prefer to turn that around and wonder in awe at an endless array of stars and planets among which sentient, creative, intelligent humans are the most important of all creations.
NASA’s photos make it seem obvious that other life exists amid the trillions of lights in the heavens. Chances are, they look up and wonder whether they are insignificant, as well.
As the young man who saved four drowning people instinctively knew, the answer to that one is the real wonder of the universe. No life is insignificant.