I placed this image on my FaceBook page with the comment “Every single smudge in this image, in addition to the face-on spiral and oblique spiral behind it, contains one hundred thousand million stars and this makes up a tiny, tiny proportion of the night sky. And all of this was created for us? Who is kidding who?” and I got one or two rather interesting comments which make it worth returning to the subject in a little more depth.
One comment was, “Interestingly, Tony, that is exactly why I believe in some sort of ‘God’. I’m not saying that I disagree with evolution, more that stuff is sometimes just too amazing to think that it is all just random…” and the other was, “The more we see of this universe, the more wonderful it gets, and the more it speaks to me of a glorious divine hand behind it all. I happen to think that evolution is God’s most creative idea!”
Firstly a little more description of what you are seeing. The Milky Way, best seen in the southern hemisphere, is our own galaxy. We are located part way along one if its spiral arms and because we are in its plane all we see is a “milkiness” which is some of the hundred thousand million or so stars which make up our galaxy. The face-on galaxy above is much smaller than ours, but has roughly the same shape so you can imagine the location of sol part way along one of those starfish like arms.
To get an idea of size, it takes a light beam 50,000 years to cross the milky way, our own galaxy, but it is only one of many. There are several in the local group of galaxies and M31, the most distant object visible to the naked eye is shown below left. We can’t see much of our own galaxy owing to vast amounts of interstellar dust obscuring our view along the axis. This dust is still forming new stars.
M31 is about 2,750,000 light years away from us, but there is still work going on to finalise the distance and it may well be as close as 2,500,000 or as far away as 2,900,000 light years. Now before anyone jumps on the fact that we don’t know exactly as being a failure of science, the distance will be more exactly known when a few more particular stellar incidents have been observed. But the important point is that the light has been travelling to us for 2.5 million years. What we see above left is what it looked like more than 2.5 million years ago.
It might sound as if these distances are vast, but what is being seen in the first image is mind-bogglingly further away. Just look at the tiny smudges around the edge of that image. Each of those is also a galaxy similar to the Milky Way or M31. If you look closely you can count dozens of them yet that image represents less than one millionth of the night sky.
Estimates, because, Barri, no one has yet had time to count them all, indicate that there are more than one hundred thousand million galaxies containing an average of one hundred thousand million stars. If you find the concept of these numbers in words difficult, then let me put it as a figure – 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.
Because of the nature of light, we are also able to work out how far away those galaxies are and the answer is that they can be seen in all directions for some 10,000,000,000 light years. Beyond that the largest telescopes are looking back towards the big bang and galaxies then were still in the process of being formed. High energy objects are seen which it is thought eventually became galaxies. The explanations of this are rapidly growing more clear owing to the Hubble telescope and other new instruments.
What is the point of this post?
Well the first comment at the top of this post seems to suggest that there could be an all powerful being which created everything. There is no way of proving a negative so I must accept that as a possibility. Extending that possibility into a being which, is interested in each of us as individuals has no basis in fact and is such an arrogant belief that we should seriously fear the holders of such beliefs, very much indeed. People with these same beliefs, in the past, burned witches, stoned those they thought evil, murdered those of other beliefs and still damn anyone, who does not share their insanity, to eternal punishment in hell and to be forever damned with Lucifer. When they aren’t on crusades and murdering Islamic people, they are having their sky scrapers blown apart by their opposite numbers. Nice people with a nice God!
The second comment that evolution is God’s most creative idea takes us down the same path. If we call the creator “God”, for the sake of argument, then the comment might well be correct, although we’d really need to know a lot more about everything else in the universe before we could be sure that evolution on Earth is the most creative idea in the universe. It is also an interesting comment from the point of view that it makes no claims for God’s personal interference or interest in our lives and therefore carries some credibility for the rest of us.
So, both of the people who made comments have stated credible views.
Sadly, though, there will be people reading this (although they probably stopped long before this paragraph) believing that the earth is only six thousand years old and that all the evidence to the contrary, including the universe which surrounds us, was created at the same time to add some mystery to our lives. I can’t help but get angry with these people even though I am normally a most tolerant person. I don’t like to call people with strange beliefs “stupid”, but these can certainly be catalogued along with flat-Earthers.
I intend to come back to this subject in the future …. God willing of course?