Thursday, March 3, 2011

Distance and Perspective

I had originally planned to blog about Facebook's disturbing decision to start releasing phone numbers and home addresses of its members tonight, but while working on the slideshow for a presentation I'm giving for my seminar class on Friday I came across something that changed my focus. Broadened it, you might say.

First of all, take a look at the picture below:

This is a galaxy very far away. I don't know what it's called or I'd tell you. It comes from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the farthest and deepest picture of the universe ever taken. Now, I don't know what the size of this galaxy is, but let's pretend it's about the size of our own Milky Way, about 30 kiloparsecs or 100,000 light years across. It looks a lot like what we think the Milky Way would look like from the outside, so it's a reasonable fancy. At this scale, of course, our Sun would be absolutely impossible to see. If we imagine this galaxy to be like the Milky Way, it probably has in the range of 100-400 billion stars.

Now, take a look at the picture below:

This is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in all it's glory. See the biggest galaxy there in the lower right? That's the one in the first picture above. Now, there are an estimated 10,000 galaxies in this picture. Almost every single point of light that you see is another galaxy, with anywhere from a few million to hundreds of billions of stars in it (I've only found five foreground Milky Way stars in the picture so far). Now go back and look at the first picture again, but this time don't look at the bright, attention grabbing spiral in the middle. Despite its distance, that galaxy is practically next door compared to the other galaxies you see in the picture. Look at the tiny blobs of light in the background. Those are some of the farthest objects ever observed by man. Many of them are in the 10-13 billion light year range, or around 60 trillion billion miles away. Now just sit and think on that for a while. It helps to keep in mind that this picture covers an area roughly one thirteen-millionth of the sky.

As to the point of this post...well, I'm afraid I don't have any trite take-away message. All I can say is that it helped me regain a useful perspective on life for when I start taking myself too seriously and worrying too much about things. Some might find it depressing...I find it awe-inducing, that we can observe such indescribably awesome scenes. My hope is that this will change your perspective in some way today. After all, it's pictures like this that remind me why I chose astronomy as my life's profession.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and stars, which you have ordained; 
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty! 
 Psalms 8:3-5


  1. Wow.
    What's really cool is that I was contemplating almost the exact same thing yesterday, though my thoughts were slightly more along the lines of history.

  2. Thanks, guys. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who finds such things contemplation-inducing.

  3. Yes, the sheer scale of the universe is staggering to put it unjustifiably lightly. I think that one of the main philosophical points I take away from the fact that the Earth is a speck of dust orbiting an ordinary star on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy in a universe filled with hundreds of billions of other such galaxies is not to take ourselves too seriously. I've always thought that people might be more laid-back and peaceable if we all really, truly understood our infinitesimal scale compared to the universe and stopped treating our issues like they really matter in some grand, objective way.

  4. Why don't you name it the Golden Galaxy? That is what I call it. The Golden Galaxy.


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