Yesterday I looked online at a light pollution map.  It’s really just photographs of the earth in darkness, stitched together to form a scalable image of the entire earth at night. Zoom out and you can see the entire earth; zoom in and you can get an up-close view of the light pollution in your own back-yard, relatively speaking.

The image was fascinating, if more than a little depressing because it made clear that the night sky in many places cannot really be seen, due to light pollution.  But what struck me as I gazed at the images and scooted across the globe and zoomed in and out with my mouse was this: we’re so incredibly small.

As I tried to zoom in on the Dallas area, I imagined myself, sitting at my desk, as a microscopic dot in the wash of light that covered the Dallas area.  And then I imagined millions of people like me sitting at their desks, their eyes on their computer monitors, trying to find themselves within that massive wash of light.  And that wash of light, in reality, is not massive at all…zoom out from the image and it’s just a speck.  And that speck is barely visible in “close-up” from a satellite circling the earth. Then, I tried to imagine viewing the earth from a nearby star.  No, I couldn’t see it, because it’s too small.  Even the other nearby stars, stars thousands of times larger than earth, look small from those distances.

Of course this sense of smallness I feel is not new; it’s not even new to me.  But I feel it more frequently these days.  The poem I posted here yesterday confronts monstrous, catastrophic events, but in the context of interstellar space—in the context of galaxies colliding with one another and new galaxies being formed and stars dying—those events are meaningless.

It occurs to me how utterly impossible it must be for our human brains to even begin to understand scale. How is it possible to understand scale when we feel overwhelmed by death and destruction affecting a country like Iraq and then turn to the skies and see (or learn about) the destruction of entire galaxies?

I try to understand the lesson in this. I try to come to the conclusion that scale is irrelevant. I try to accept that meaning does not correlate with mass.   And I am successful, though that success is fragile and may easily be fractured into a million pieces the instant the right emotion finds the slightest crack in the armor of the intellect.

When I look at the sky at night and see the twinkling pinpoints through that wash of man-made light, I conclude there absolutely must be life out among the stars.  The scale of the place in which we live is such that there just must be life out there…statistical probabilities almost certainly support that contention.  I wonder if that life is as hopelessly flawed as the life on this planet.  Odds are very good that it is.  But, still, it would be interesting to know, you know, for sure.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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