Wednesday, May 05, 2010

some people have god, I have hubble...,

Guardian | for those of us without faith, I propose the Hubble Deep Field Image as an excellent alternative way to get some perspective. In 1995, the Hubble telescope was pointed for 10 days at a patch of sky which appears completely blank to the naked eye from the Earth. It's a tiny piece – much smaller than the area of sky you'd cover with your little fingernail if you held your arm outstretched. And in that apparently blank area of sky the Hubble Deep Field Image discerned with amazing clarity more than 10,000 galaxies. Each galaxy is made up, on average, of about 100bn stars. Every star could, like our sun, be orbited by planets. That is the size of the universe we live in.

This may not be a thought that makes you feel calm. Although many people find that this sense of scale helps make their own problems seem less enormous, it doesn't work for everyone. For some the sense of how incredibly small we actually are seems to instil terror instead. But perhaps even terrifying perspective is important. In 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission, a photograph known as Earthrise was taken. It shows the Earth, from the moon, rising across the lunar landscape. This photograph has been called "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken". The sense it gave of the Earth as small, beautiful and fragile – the understanding that, whatever our differences, we're all together on one small planet – has been credited with kick-starting the environmental movement of the 1970s.

The Apollo space missions may have come partly out of the paranoia of the cold war, but the legacy they've left has been one that can move us out of tribalism. Hubble's contribution to scientific understanding has been impressive, including information about the speed at which the universe is expanding, investigating black holes and improving our estimates of its age. But the benefits of appreciating the size and scale of our universe aren't limited to science.

If I were in charge of such things, I'd mandate that before every climate change conference, before peace talks and trade negotiations, leaders and policians should spend some minutes contemplating the Hubble Deep Field. This is the size of the universe we may as a species, if we're industrious, resourceful and fortunate, get to explore. This can be our goal: surely one worth pursuing. With so many pressing problems on Earth, how can we afford not to try to focus on the things that unite us? Human beings used to cast their eyes heavenwards in search of divine inspiration, but it turns out that the stars themselves can be inspirational enough.