The late Dr. Carl Sagan once spoke poetically about the unimaginable magnitude of the universe when he said “for small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
I certainly think love has a place in giving our lives meaning. I find that the vastness of the universe also brings a certain peace to life, through a humbling perspective about one’s real circumstances.
The past year has been unusually difficult. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, an economic recession, widespread racial tensions, a critical presidential election, and a violent insurrection at the seat of our government. To say it’s been stressful would be a profound understatement, and these circumstances have weighed heavy on people in many different ways.
The Challenges of the Past Year Have Made Stress a Familiar Companion
I’m no exception. The challenges of the past year — coupled with the kinds of personal and family issues that we all have to confront in our own lives — have made stress a familiar companion in my day-to-day affairs.
However, as someone with a passion for astronomy, I find a strange solace in the grandeur of the universe and my relatively tiny place within it. For example, just when circumstances seem overwhelming and unbearable, I’m reminded that I’m just one of more than 7 billion humans on planet Earth, all of us with our own loves, challenges and adversity.
I also remember that planet Earth is just one of eight in our solar system, and it’s not even terribly remarkable in and of itself. It’s not the biggest or the smallest. It’s not the hottest or the coldest. It doesn’t spin the fastest or the slowest. Sure, it is the only planet that we know of so far with the conditions necessary to support life. As such, we humans might understandably think Earth is pretty awesome, but I would argue we’re more than a little biased there, but the fact is data from our exoplanet hunting suggests that there could be thousands or even millions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy.
Our Sun Is Just One of More than a Hundred Billion Such Stars that Comprise Our Galaxy
Our sun is just one of more than a hundred billion such stars that comprise our galaxy. And among them, we don’t even hold some significant position. We’re out near the end of the Carina-Sagittarius arm in what one might call the galactic suburbs.
The Milky Way itself isn’t even actually a particularly impressive galaxy. In fact, we’re expecting that in about two billion years the Milky Way will merge with the approaching Andromeda galaxy and create an entirely new galactic formation from the two structures.
These two galaxies are far from the only ones. Observations from deep field studies indicate that there are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And each galaxy in the universe is composed of hundreds of billions of stars, orbited by hundreds of billions of planets, with all manner of chaos ensuing in the space among them: Impacts and collisions, exploding stars, pulsars, quasars, and supermassive black holes that routinely gobble up entire star systems — the universe is an unfathomably big and busy place.
Finally, a last “nail in the coffin” of the collective human ego lies in the temporal brevity with which we live our lives. The universe is an estimated 13.7 billion years old. That means that even if you were to live to be a hundred, you would only be around to see about 0.0000007% of it. Not much to show for a lifetime’s work.
The Vastness of Our Universe Brings a Humbling Sobriety
So how does this affect the perspectives of an astronomer? Speaking only for myself, the vastness of our universe brings a humbling sobriety that grounds me in the actual reality of my situation, without all of the contrived senses of doom and gloom that the human mind can all too often create.
Imagine, for example, that you’re worried about getting sick, or losing your job, or not being able to adequately care for your family. It’s not to say that these aren’t valid concerns, or things you shouldn’t take seriously or do everything you can to avoid. However, remembering how brief a time we’re here and how small a place we occupy in the universe can be a powerful impetus to compel us to live our lives to the fullest, and to try to find ways to be happy and limit stress.
To be clear, stress can be helpful if it enables us to think more clearly and make smarter decisions that allow us to avoid danger and negative consequences. In the same sense, there are important matters in each of our lives, including family, friends, professional commitments, and of course, our own well-being, too. So nothing here should be misconstrued as a nihilistic treatise that the vastness of the universe suggests you shouldn’t care about anything because life doesn’t matter. Even if it doesn’t matter to the universe at large, it matters to us and that is what counts.
But there are such things as too much stress and too much worrying. Remembering there are bigger things happening on the grandest of scales can remind us that our minute problems will never be the literal “end of the world.” They may seem terrifying in the moment, but this too shall pass. No matter what happens, the Earth will keep spinning and orbiting the sun; the sun will keep orbiting within the Milky Way; and the universe will carry on.
So we should do the best we can to make good choices and to address the challenges we face with the poise and forethought they require. But we should also try to remember that, if we’re only riding around on this tiny ball of rock in the universe for the equivalent of a blink of an eye, we ought to spend that blink as happily and peacefully as we can. We definitely shouldn’t stress or worry any more than we absolutely must. And of course, in the spirit of Dr. Sagan’s words, we should seek and promote love so as to make it all bearable in the end.