As writers, we’re supposed to be able to imagine things – unlikely things, even impossible things. But there are some experiences that transcend everything, that challenge us to go beyond our limits. I’m not just talking about abstractions or those seemingly ineffable things such as ‘love’ or ‘faith’. I’m talking about a feeling I had after reading about the various phases of the Deep Field project.
The night sky’s big. And full of stars. But the scientists operating the Hubble telescope decided to have a look at a tiny black bit, a 24 millionth of the whole sky which seemed to have nothing in it. ‘Seemed’ is an important qualification because, in fact, they found about 3000 visible objects there, nearly all of which were galaxies. So they focused on an even smaller area within the original one, the Ultra Deep Field, wherein spun some 10,000 more.
Remember, the light from these objects has to travel a long way to get to us so what Hubble was seeing were galaxies as they appeared 13.2 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang that started everything. Pretty impressive, but they wanted more, so they narrowed the field even further, choosing a tiny space near the middle. They were now looking at a piece of sky about the size of a square millimetre of paper held about a metre away from the observer and, sure enough, it was crammed with yet more galaxies. In this, the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field, they could add another 5,500 to those they’d already seen. All this in an infinitesimally minute patch of black sky, each galaxy teeming with stars, trillions of which have planets in orbit around them.
Now, keep on multiplying those galaxies in every square millimetre of sky and ask yourself this: in all that unimaginable profusion, what are the chances of an organism developing in the ocean on just one of those planets, deciding to find out what it was like on the beach and ending up making and launching into space a telescope capable of seeing over 13 billion years back in time? The answer? Slim. Nonetheless, that’s what happened. How unlikely, how absurd.
When confronted with the vastness of the universe and our own (in)significance within it, my mind can’t cope. People say looking up at the stars puts things in perspective, but in reality everything’s so unimaginably huge that it goes way beyond what we call perception. We can’t grasp the extent of those distances, the monumental emptiness in which these clouds of gas and lumps of matter hang and move.
But that’s just one end of the spectrum.
The hero of the terrific 1957 sci-fi film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, has to confront the issue of infinity directly after sailing through a cloud of toxic gas which causes the shrinking to start. He gets smaller and smaller until he’s microscopically tiny and it’s at this point that he has a revelation, that there are two infinities – the infinitely large and the infinitely small – and that they meet to close the circle of creation. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend it, if only for his brilliant final monologue.
It’s unfortunate that he undermines the magic of the moment by deciding that something as vast and beautiful as the universe ‘had to mean something’. After dismissing concepts of ‘beginnings and endings’ as a ‘limited dimension’ belonging to humans not Nature, it’s strange that he doesn’t also accept that the same is true of ‘meaning’.
But the reason I’m mentioning the film isn’t to quibble about matters of faith, it’s because it brings together the two awe-inspiring extremes of our condition, extremes beyond description or even comprehension. It illustrates that there are limits to what we can conceive, imaginative states in which there are literally no words to convey the experience.
And the final words of that monologue? The proud assertion ‘I still exist’.