There is an old woodcut depicting a bearded wise man wearing pointed, curled up slippers, a wizard’s hat, and a long blue robe with astrological signs on it. He is surrounded by the scientific equipment of his time. He has crept up to the curtain of the sky and pulled back the corner, and what is revealed to him are the great gears and clockwork mechanisms of the universe.
Imagine that we could do the same. First, find some tiny part of the sky in which nothing has ever been seen. Total blackness. Then take the most advanced telescope in the world and train it on this infinitesimal part of the sky, no bigger than a grain of sand held at arm’s length. Try it. Hold this imaginary grain of sand at arm’s length, and think about what a small part of the sky it is—infinitesimally small. Then photograph this void, for days upon days. Surely, we think, there must be something there.
In 1996 we did this. The Hubble Deep Field telescope, parked in space, photographed an empty speck of sky over a long period of time, many days. What we found there, instead of perhaps the few wayward stars we expected, was a vast population of galaxies, at least 1,500 of them in this tiny pinpoint of sky, each galaxy with some 500-billion to a trillion stars and untold numbers of planets.
In a teeny speck of sky.
The revelation makes our mouth drop open: if there are this many galaxies and stars in such a small speck of sky, the rest of the sky must contain equivalent numbers of galaxies we never suspected. Each with 500-billion to a trillion stars.
As we gaze at the night sky with unaided eye, we are awed by the vastness of space, and the countless stars we see. We were aware before we saw this picture that there are heavenly bodies beyond counting. But when this single Hubble photograph was released to the public, we approached a tiny rift in the fabric of the universe, peeked through it, and realized that the unutterably immense universe we thought we knew is only a miniscule fragment of what exists. We had peeked through this rent in the fabric of the universe to the beginning of everything, even to the beginning of time.
How completely meaningless everything we know appears in all this vastness. How utterly pathetic that we can’t seem to get along with one another on our beautiful little blue dot. How stupid, all our wars and politics, and our devotion to so much that is insignificant.