Viewing the Universe

We have all seen photographs of endless star fields, galaxies, and nebulae. But no matter how great their beauty, the stars in photographs are lifeless, and no view of the night sky with the unaided eye, even in the clearest atmosphere, is like the first view through a small telescope. If looking at the Milky Way with the unaided eye is akin to snorkeling on a coral reef, then adding a telescope is like strapping on scuba tanks: We are no longer tied to the surface but can roam the depths of the star fields and see unimagined splendors amid stars whose numbers are beyond belief. Even with a low-power telescope a new vision emerges; the uncountable pinpricks of light now revealed are seemingly alive, in no way diminished by their passage through corrected lenses. In fact, the stars gain strength, color, and clarity. But the greatest and most lasting impression is the increase in their sheer numbers. The superb double-star cluster in Perseus changes from a dull, unresolvable glow to bountiful diamonds sprinkled on black velvet; the globular cluster in Hercules is transformed from a tiny smudge to scattered grains of light. With time and experience, even greater vistas open up. We discover the joys of other deep-space objects, galaxies and nebulae. And eventually, in the Northern hemisphere, we inevitably find ourselves slowly moving through the crowded star fields of Sagittarius on a dark summer night, the light from this luminous expanse of stars sweeping the senses like a wind, nebulae and galaxies an endless visual melody punctuated by staccatos of brighter suns. Those in the Southern hemisphere witness even more dramatic vistas: the two great Magellenic Clouds looming so close overhead. It becomes spectacle, overwhelming, and ultimately—diminishing. The myriad stars overcome us, so utterly do they trivialize (marginalize? minimize?) our small planet and we who stare out.

The Universe seems to be finite; there are not an infinite number of planets circling the vast number of stars in the ocean of space. But the numbers are immense beyond understanding. We are one of many planets. But as we have tried to show in this book, perhaps not so many as we might hope— and perhaps not so many that we will ever, however long the history of our species, find any extraterrestrial animals among the stars surrounding our sun. That is a fate not foreseen by Hollywood—that we may find nothing but bacteria, even on planets orbiting distant stars.

If the Rare Earth Hypothesis is correct—that is, if microbial life is common but animal life is rare—there will be societal implications, or at least some small personal implications. What will be the effect if news comes back from the next Mars mission that there is life on Mars after all—microbial to be sure, but life. Or what if, after astronauts voyage repeatedly to other planets in our solar system, or even to the dozen nearest stars, we find nothing more advanced than a bacterium? What if, at least in this quadrant of the galaxy, we are quite alone, not just as the only intelligent organisms but also as the only animals? How much of our striving to travel into space is the hope of discovering—and perhaps talking to—other animalia?

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