Click on the Hubble image to read Nathaniel Scharping's article, The Universe is 10 times more vast than we thought. Image Credit: Hubble Image NASA/ESA
How do we make sense of a universe that contains over two trillion galaxies? I have been wrestling with this question since reading Nathaniel Schapring's recent article in Astronomy Magazine, explaining why science now believes there are ten times more galaxies in the universe than previously thought. Using the basic scientific principle of learning by taking big things and breaking them down into small things, I have been looking for an analogy that would help me make sense of a two trillion galaxy universe and, hopefully, find some new insight into how this reality shapes my overall understanding of God's creation and my place in this world.
My first attempt was to think of a finite space like a room or an elevator in which ten times more people were present then previously thought. This analogy bore no fruit. In my desire to find an analogy that evoked a sense of awe and wonder at two trillion galaxies, the end result was an experience of claustrophobia. Needless to say, this analogy did not provide an awe-inspiring view of the universe.
A second attempt at trying to make sense of two trillion galaxies was to compare my debt history with the current national debt of the United States of America. At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the national debt for the USA was 18.5 trillion dollars. The largest debt I have ever carried was $16,000 when I bout my first car after being ordained to the priesthood. The primary reaction to this analogy was stress, realizing the anxiety I felt signing a piece of paper that intentionally put me in debt. The idea of carrying an 18.5 trillion dollar debt made me feel numb with no practical way of first conceptualizing 18.5 trillion dollars, let alone having to then owe people this amount of money. Needless to say, I felt my ability to create analogies that provided a clear, practical explanation of two trillion galaxies fell a bit flat.
Nevertheless, the one insight that did bear some fruit was the numbing feeling of trying to conceptualize 18.5 trillion of something. To me, the difference between two trillion and eighteen trillion can be easily identified, but nearly impossible to internalize. I think that many people, scientist and non-scientist alike, can struggle with this similar deficiency in our ability to process such an enormous reality. Our attempts to make sense of a two trillion galaxy universe does not create a sense of galactic claustrophobia or unthinkable economic stress, but often awakens an immediate feeling of smallness and insignificant: In a universe so vast that it can contain more than two trillion galaxies, why do I, in my smallness, even matter?
As I have shared in the past, many brilliant minds have embraced this "small view" of our perspective of the universe to argue that humanity is delusional if we think that our lives matter in this vast universe. This reflection, however, presumes an understanding of the universe that is limited to our current perspective of the material world. When looking at other eras of the history of the universe, our perspective would be drastically different, flipping our understanding of "small" and "big."
For example, let us imagine the moment just before the Big Bang. The best science of our day tells us that the universe was a singularity. This leads to a logical question: What is a singularity? Constructing a basic definition based on Google search results yields a layman's answer of a one-dimensional, infinitely small and dense point, in which all of our current understanding of the laws of physics break down. Now, how do I make sense of this as a non-scientist? To be honest, I have an equally difficult time wrapping my brain around an infinitely small singularity and a universe of over two trillion galaxies. All I do know is that at the beginning of the material origins of the known universe there was nothing but small. Nobody would argue that the singularity that has expanded into our current universe was insignificant. Therefore, if small things mattered at our universe's material beginnings, why would they no longer matter now that this small galactic "seed" has expanding and bore the "fruit" of over two trillion galaxies? Perhaps a better way to view the universe is not as something unthinkably big with a bunch of annoying, meaningless small things, but instead a vast collect of small, essential things that remind us of our small origins.
All of this, of course, presumes that our understanding of "small" and "big" really matter when understanding the universe. Just as our understanding of "up" and "down" have no real meaning once you leave our planet, does "small" and "big" simply represent our ability to make spatial sense of the universe based on our subjective experience? Are there other perspectives that are not contingent upon limiting terms like "small" and "big" that would broaden our language about the universe and our place in it? Physics may very well have a good answer to the "small/big" problem I am exploring, but I am not a physicist. Therefore, for those who are professional scientists, I invite your comments below to help bring clarity to the science behind this reflection.
Speaking from a perspective I do have good knowledge of, theology, there is much that can be reflected upon to make sense of being a small part of an unthinkably big universe. When we explore the basics of the Doctrine of God, we realize that God is not a being, but Being itself. Therefore, the experience of a being, (time, space, up, down, big, and small) is not a condition in which God is contained nor do these things influence God. To understand God according to the definition of the Sacred Name, God IS, God's understanding of creation is not limited to the musing of the human person. Therefore, it very well might be that to God every microorganism is a universe and every universe is a microorganism. The God who Is, the God who is Being, can at the same time be present to the grandeur of the totality of all creation, both known and unknown, seen and unseen, while at the same time be present to the smallest singularity in which the potential of a two trillion galaxy universe resides. In short, God transcends our limited language of small and big, helping us understand that the God who brought all things into existence is also aware of the smallest of things in existence, even, to quote Scripture, the hairs on our head and the sparrows of the sky.
Reflection: How do you perceive your place in God's creation? Does it fill you with awe and wonder or do you feel a bit deflated, feeling small and insignificant? In this Advent season, let us remember that we believe in a God who brought into existence an unthinkably big creation, but also entered into our smallness in the womb of Mary. And may we open our hearts to God come Christmas and allow for God's infinite love to enliven our souls through the intimacy of Christ's love for us and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit.