Keeping Things In Perspective
God and the universe have larger concerns
by Gordon Campbell
A few things to consider.
1. There are about 170 billion visible galaxies in the universe. Most are about 1.000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter. One parsec is 30.9 trillion kilometres. Each galaxy contains stars, the remains of dead and exploded stars, a mixture of gas and dust, and a whole lot of dark energy/ dark matter. (Don’t ask.) In between the galaxies lies intergalactic space. It stretches for million of parsecs between galaxies.
2. Small galaxies circling in this void may contain only 10 million stars. Big galaxies contain a hundred trillion stars. We live in a medium-sized galaxy called The Milky Way. It contains between 100 billion and 400 billion stars. While travelling at 300,000 kilometres a second, light takes 100,000 to 120,000 years to travel across our local galactic neighbourhood, the Milky Way.
3. Close by is still very far away. If you could transform the sun to the size of a white blood cell (ie, reduce it down to where it is only seven one-millionths of a metre in size ), and brought everything else down to the same scale, the Milky Way would still be the size of the continental United States. Here’s another way of looking at it. The New Horizons spacecraft travels at a speedy 60,000 kms an hour, and it is currently due to arrive at Pluto in 2015. It will have taken nine years to get there. Besides the sun, the nearest star to Earth is Promixa Centauri. Even at that 60,000 kilometres an hour maximum velocity, it would take the New Horizons spacecraft 78,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri. And that’s just to get to our next door neighbour.
4. Amid the 100-400,000 stars in our local neighbourhood medium-sized galaxy is one medium-sized star, the sun. It has several planets orbiting around it. We live on one of the smaller ones. This smallish planet has a land mass of 510,072,000 square kilometres. We live in New Zealand. It has a land mass of 268, 680 square kilometres. This is .00526749% of the planet’s land mass. In New Zealand, there are 4,433,000 people. This is .062915% of the world’s population of 7,046,000,000 people.
5. It is supposed to matter a great deal whether this man (pictured left) or that other man (also pictured left) is chosen next year to govern the .062915% of the world’s people who reside on this planet, in this country that comprises .00526749% of the Earth’s land mass. This is not, and never has been, a matter of prime importance to the other 7, 041,700,000 people who live on the rest of planet Earth.
6. On this smallish planet, several explanations for the origin and purpose of humanity and the known universe compete for followers. What the main explanations have in common is the belief that whatever called into existence and shaped the 170 billion visible galaxies and the trillions of stars and the intergalactic void and the Milky Way and the sun ( and the orbiting Earth and New Zealand ) remains intimately aware and concerned and mercifully judgmental about whether you and I and all the other 7,046,000,000 people have really been as honest and nice and kind and thoughtful as we might have been today, and on all the other days of our lives, all things considered.
7. Every one of the 4,433,000 people who live in New Zealand think their personal happiness, health and wellbeing is a matter of prime importance. As a consequence, it is commonly regarded as a matter of substance whether one particular person among the other 7,046,000,000 people on Earth likes us. I mean, really likes us, respects, and understands us. And us, them. It is also held to be important that we be destined to meet, in circumstances favourable to an enduring union.
8. For some, it is mathematically possible that this might prove to be the case. It is more likely that some compromises may be necessary.
9. It is also likely that whatever created and shaped the galaxies and had them strewn across the intergalactic void is not keeping a daily running tally of the personal morality of each and every one of us. Not impossible. You wouldn’t want to under-rate anyone who can make the universe, but it seems unlikely.
10. That has implications. Two hundred years ago – which is a mere blink in the time it takes for light to travel a short distance across the Milky Way, let alone the void – you and I were not imagined, or imaginable. In 200 years time, it is likely no one will remember us, let alone regret our absence. Still, the fact we are cosmically insignificant doesn’t make life meaningless. It makes it significant. To you, me and our significant others, at least. So go for it.
11. The universe meanwhile, goes up to eleven :
12. And in some respects, to twelve. Have fun.