What the Universe Says about Human Significance
By: Stan Guthrie|Published: December 1, 2016 4:06 PM
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“Astronomy,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “taught us our insignificance in Nature.”
Many people believe this, and on one level, it’s hard to blame them. The size of the universe overawes any who contemplate it.
According to scientists’ best estimates, the cosmos is 91 billion (that’s 91,000,000,000) light years in diameter. A light year, you may recall, equals, give or take, about 6 trillion (that’s 6,000,000,000,000) miles. Multiply 91 billion by 6 trillion and you get a round trip of 546 billion trillion miles. It’s incomprehensible.
How many stars are there? Astronomers estimate the presence of 10 trillion (or 10,000,000,000,000) galaxies like our own Milky Way, each with an average of 100 billion (or 100,000,000) stars, for a grand total of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe.
By contrast, our own solar system itself, with its single star—the sun—is a comparative cosmic speck. Astronomers calculate its distance from the sun to the Kuiper cliff—beyond which few objects have been detected—at 50 Astronomical Units. One AU is 93 million (or 93,000,000) miles, the distance between the earth and the sun. Fifty AU translates to 4.65 billion (or 4,650,000,000) miles—a rather hefty jaunt.
Traveling at the speed of light—roughly 186,000 miles per second—it would take you about seven hours to go from one end of our solar system to another. (At that speed, it would take you over three years to reach Proxima Centauri, the next closest star.)
And keep in mind that flying at the speed of light—however many “Star Trek” reruns we see—is a practical impossibility. It would take a spacecraft flying at 36,000 miles per hour—the fastest yet built—somewhere around 19 years just to traverse the length of our solar system.
Given these “astronomical” distances and our own smallness next to them, it’s no wonder that the late Carl Sagan once remarked, “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Yet new developments in astronomy are actually leading us to a far different conclusion about our significance in the cosmos.
No less an authority than Howard A. Smith, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the Harvard Department of Astronomy, says so. In a fascinating article for the Washington Post, Smith says the evidence shows that the earth, rather than being one unremarkable bit of rock among “billions and billions” of others in the cosmic vastness, is instead an incalculably precious jewel.
“We seem to be cosmically special,” Smith states, “perhaps even unique—at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.”
Smith cites two pieces of scientific evidence. The first, big bang cosmology—the study of the universe’s origins and development—reveals that the cosmos appears to be designed to accommodate human life.
“The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life,” Smith says. “The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms)—for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here.”
Along these lines, Eric Metaxas, author of the bestseller “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life,” has noted a related point when it comes to planets being capable of supporting life. Metaxas says a planet must fulfill more than 200 known conditions—such as orbiting the right kind of star, at the proper distance, with just the right tilt of the planet’s axis, with a massive neighboring planet like Jupiter to protect it from killer asteroids—to be able to support life. Again, the odds are simply “astronomical.”
“Yet here we are,” Metaxas says, “not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces?”
One way we know about the uniqueness of the earth is by studying planets that orbit other stars. These exoplanets, Smith’s second line of evidence, are being discovered in ever-increasing numbers by ever-improving technology. But rather than displaying earthlike environments conducive to life, these exotic exoplanets reveal how special earth conditions really are.
“Many have highly elliptical orbits around unstable stars, making evolution over billions of years difficult if not impossible,” Smith says. “Other systems contain giant planets that may have drifted inward, disrupting orbits; and there are many other unanticipated properties.”
For his part, Smith believes we might be “alone in the universe,” and that therefore life here on earth has special significance. “All the observations so far,” he says, “are consistent with the idea that humanity is not mediocre at all and that we won’t know otherwise for a long time. It seems we might even serve some cosmic role.”
The Christmas season, of course, emphatically proclaims:
- that human beings are not alone but have been visited by a cosmic Intelligence far surpassing our own;
- that we are not mediocre but have been forever dignified by a Savior who deigned to take on our flesh; and
- that we are not insignificant but have a cosmic role, “to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
So the next time you hear that the universe proves our insignificance, don’t believe it. It’s a claim disproved by both science and Scripture. As the Psalmist said:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.