The 1750s brought the advent of the “Island Universe” hypothesis. Real science for the acceptance of this theory began building in 1912. The debate was heated, until the 1920s when Edwin Hubble, with the aid of the world’s largest telescope, proved the existence of “Island Universes”. The central epiphany of this theory? That there are other galaxies outside our own.
It has still been less than a single century since we began to grasp our own position in space.
I’ve been slowly working my way through the gigantic book Cosmos: A Field Guide which I got for christmas. As a source of stimuli, it’s provoked a lot of thought and given me inspiration to write about the resulting ideas here on this blog. It continues to be a wellspring of mind-bogglement. There’s the images within it, which are worthy of staring at for a long time and letting your mind wander, and there’s also the text which has an almost-humorous way of slipping in wild information in a matter-of-fact tone.
Maybe to the people who would write such a book, the facts it contains would be concepts taken for granted. Like the previously mentioned quote:
And these incredible revelations are inserted randomly, almost like throwaway anecdotes or afterthoughts to the images. A little, “oh, by the way” slipped in. Oh by the way, there’s more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way. I was going to just keep quiet and let you enjoy the pictures, but this little trivial factoid came to mind so I thought I’d let you know. Pffft.
I came upon another doozy last night: When naming places in space, there are conventions which are typically followed, to differentiate between categories. Below is an image of a place called “47 Tucanae” which was so named because in the day it was first cataloged, it was believed to be a single star. In time, better telescopes revealed that this point of light was not a single star, but a globular cluster; possibly the ancient remains of a galaxy that once was. It’s composed of over a million stars.
Over a MILLION. The first time we saw it, we thought it was only one star. One. Turns out it’s a million of them. At least. That’s six orders of magnitude larger. A million is a number which is hard to visualize. It’s far, far too large for someone to count these stars by hand. No doubt the number was calculated by mass computations, image analyzing software, or some other novel method. It’s comical how wrong that first assessment was. And not that the man with the inadequate telescope wasn’t trying–far from it–he simply didn’t have the vision to see.
But this little observational mistake meaningfully captures something for me; it’s emblematic of the vastness of the universe, of our smallness within it, and most of all, of our feeble ability to see it for what it truly is. The Earth, which we once thought to be flat, is most definitely round. The heavens, which were once thought to orbit around the Earth, have entirely independent trajectories. And a place that we once thought was a single star turns out to be over a million stars.
It’s a zen reminder that for all the mountaintops we climb, there are even loftier peaks beyond, obscured by the slopes we have yet to conquer.