Powers of Ten

Here’s a video I remember seeing at the National Air and Space Museum when I was a kid:

The ’70s aesthetic of the video dates it a bit, as does the forty-year-old astronomy. But the way it conveys the incomprehensible vastness of the universe is still awe-inspiring.

But one line always stuck with me: “This lonely scene . . . is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal—the richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.” Others, when hearing this line, understand it as reinforcing the scientific materialist view of our insignificance. I don’t. I understand it as a comment on how “exceptional” we are. Being the exception to the rule is what makes our world significant, and within our world it’s what makes us significant. No other animal, no matter how intelligent, can conceive of the world beyond the immediate horizon. We can see, theorize, and speculate on the nature of the universe itself.

There may only be a few earth-like planets in our galaxy or there may be many. That doesn’t matter, when almost all the universe is emptiness the very rare exceptions are special, and we are the exception among exceptions. We aren’t at the center of the universe—there is no center—and we wouldn’t want to be at the center of the galaxy or the solar system—both are uninhabitable. There is no privileged place—besides a habitable zone around a main sequence star that allows us to exist at all—our privilege is having the unique (and as far as we know, only) intelligence capable of figuring at least some of these things out.

To comprehend at even an imperfect level the vastness and complexity of creation, makes us closer to the creator (if there is one) than any other creature we know of. One might say it makes us uniquely in the Image of God.

That, to me, is even more awe-inspiring.


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