Carl Sagan was an astronomer and astrophysicist, an educator and a dedicated lover of life and learning. He died just before Christmas 1992, when he was only 62 years old … far too young for anyone who so tenaciously embraced life, who thrived as teacher and learner, who so relished the bounteous gifts of Creation -- and made wonderment so appealing.
His wife, Ann Druyan, tells us that Dr. Sagan wanted us to see ourselves as “starstuff,” as made of atoms forged in the fiery hearts of distant stars. And, to be clear, his words were not merely poetic imagery. We humans are, indeed, made up of the chemistry of the cosmos, of elements which comprise the incredibly complex and ultimately unfathomable reality of the Universe, our home.
Sagan described humanity, poetically and factually, as “…starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of 10 billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”
He defined science, in part, as “informed worship,” because, he added, science and religion are two approaches to the same reality, two ways of pursuing a sacred search.
Read And Look ……. And Wonder
But what do we know about our Universe, and about our place in it? For starters, let’s look at our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
It’s called the Milky Way because ancient observers perceived the stars in the night sky as a milky band of light stretching across the darkened evening sky.
And it is huge…….
NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) tells us that our Sun (which is a star) is one of at least -- at least -- 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy……. That’s 100 billion (or more) suns in our one galaxy … and we know billions of other galaxies exist.
Our Milky Way is what NASA calls a spiral galaxy about 100,000 light-years across. In case you forget, a “light-year” is the distance which light travels in one year --- about 5.878 trillion miles in one (one) year. That’s trillion with a “t”.
The stars in the Milky Way Galaxy are arranged in a pinwheel pattern with four major arms. Our Earth is located in one of those spinning arms, about two-thirds of the way outward from the center. Most of the 100 billion (or thereabouts) stars in our Milky Way Galaxy also have their own families of circling planets. Many of these newly discovered stars -- these solar systems -- are quite different from our own.
The Milky Way and its 100 billion (or more) stars orbit a supermassive black hole at our Galaxy’s center. NASA estimates that this central black hole is four million times as massive – bigger in size and weight - as our Sun. Not to worry, however: this black hole is, NASA adds soothingly, a safe and comfy distance from Earth, around 28,000 light-years away – a relief for those prone to panic attacks and catastrophic thoughts.
As a further humbling aside, NASA reminds us that our Milky Way Galaxy is but one of countless billions (again, with a “b”) of galaxies in the Universe, each having millions, or frequently, billions of stars of its own.
Moreover, scientists calculate that at least 100 billion galaxies exist in the observable -- observable -- universe. Each galaxy is brimming with stars but, in addition, each galaxy also writhes and evolves within a matrix of incalculable space which, even to the trained eye, seems empty. But space itself is packed with yet-to-be-seen energies (which are measurable) and yet-invisible forces (also measurable) which science simply cannot explain.
As my high school friends in Chicago used to interject: “Say what?”
Speed And Distance
And there’s more …….
NASA then tells us that all the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy spin in a galactic orbit around that central supermassive black hole. Our whole Galaxy spins at an average speed of about 514,000 mph. At that speed, it takes about 230 million years (or so) for our solar system to complete one revolution around that humongous black hole at our Milky Way’s center.
Next, we should note that our Milky Way Galaxy is only part of what astronomers call the “Local Group.” The “Local Group” is a “neighborhood” about 10 million light-years across. The Local Group consists of more than 30 galaxies bound to each other by the force of gravity. The most massive galaxy in our “Local Group” -- and the one closest to our Milky Way -- is the Andromeda Galaxy.
The Andromeda Galaxy is 10 billion (or so) years old, contains a trillion (or so) stars and is 2.5 million (or so) light years from our Milky Way. By the way, the Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course with our Milky Way Galaxy, and will bump into us in about four billion years (or so) … quite a sight for star gazers.
Our “Local Group” is only one of many, many clusters of galaxies. And that’s not all: these countless galaxies are all moving away -- away -- from each other. As a result, more and more space exists between them.
Conclusion? The Universe is still expanding, still enlarging itself. This discovery led to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. The echoes and the energy from the Big Bang are still very much active -- almost 14 billion years after it happened (assuming that the Big Bang did actually happen).
Another fact: these countless galaxies are not all made up of solid stuff, such as Earth is. Clouds of roiling gas and space dust comprise many of these galaxies. But … scientists have figured out that something more than observable stars and clouds of gas and dust is responsible for the astonishing abundance of additional gravity.
What accounts for this added immense gravitational force?
The source of this additional gravity is called “dark matter.” Astronomers estimate that there is five times more “dark matter” out there than what they can actually observe. Mysteriously, this “dark matter” (whatever it is) can be detected only by its gravitational pull, which bends even light. In this context, then, the word “dark” means it’s there -- but we cannot see it.
But Wait ….. There’s More !!
And that’s not all.
You’d think that, at some point, gravity would slow up the expanding Universe. You’d naturally assume that galaxies and stars and moons and planets and all the moving parts of our Universe would slow up -- especially after all these billions of years of moving outward -- and maybe even back up a bit.
Not so. Not so….. In the 1990s, scientists discovered that the Universe’s expansion is actually speeding up, getting faster. Again, at a loss to explain these mysteries, science calls the source of this acceleration “dark energy.”
So, we now have “dark matter” and “dark energy” in the Universe. No one knows what they are, only that they’re out there, exerting force and energy and change and constant movement, pushing the Universe outward at increasing speed.
And here’s yet another startling realization: “Dark energy” makes up about 68 percent of everything in the universe. “Dark matter” accounts for another 27 percent. This means what we see and observe about the Universe is barely five percent of its total.
Once again, to invoke my sage Chicago friends from high school days of yore: “Say what?”
Recalling Sagan’s Point
While some scientists deny the validity of religion in human affairs, Carl Sagan believed the objectives of religion and science were certainly compatible. He admired William James’s provocative definition of religion as “the feeling of being at home in the Universe,” and he acknowledged the bonds between science and religion. Certainly, there are cautions to be observed in terms of the methods and truths claimed by each. But commonalities are united in our expressions of awe and gratitude at these astonishing facts which, as we can see, reveal only a fraction -- a very small fraction -- of our Universe’s complexity.
Sagan advised us -- and I so agree -- that the best way to engage our religious sensibility, to ignite our innate sense of awe, is for us merely to look up on a clear night. He believed that “…everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This,” he added, “is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion… It’s after an exercise such as this that many people conclude that the religious sensibility is inevitable…”
So, What Are Our Options
When we are candid, we know that we are all errantly prone to degrees of pretentious self-adulation and ego-flailing fallibility. Every honest person knows this all too well. We are -- all of us -- on risky ground when we allow our unchecked egos to dominate, instead of embracing self-restraint and humility, and accepting the gratifying limitations of Truth.
Awe and gratitude stand in stark contrast to denial, hubris and self-indulgent puffery which, sooner or later, serve us badly. When we gaze upon the Universe in front of us with awe and gratitude, we are soon challenged by our own fragility. Even the gift of sight should prompt us to awe and gratitude.
Awe - that moment of simple wonderment - has the quiet power to untangle our needless defenses, to free us from pretense, to instill in us simplicity of heart by touching our vulnerability and tapping into our lingering innocence.
Gratitude -- that moment of gentle thanks for a gift freely given -- unlocks dispositions and sentiments which calm our preening egos. Gratitude gives pause to aggressive ambition, soothes edgy skepticism, calms clouded cynicism, relieves weary nihilism and heals troubled souls.
The Heart Of The Matter
So, it is for healthy reasons that we study, then ponder, the Universe, that we look upon incalculable space and unimaginable time. It is for beneficial reasons that we look with awe and gratitude upon the mysteries -- visible and invisible -- these facts bring to mind and spirit.
And, as we ponder, another realization hits us: amid all the mystery and power and ever-ness which our Universe possesses … here we are!
We are part of all this, part of Creation, part of the “starstuff” pondering the stars….. and ponder we must, for we are human.
As we realize what the Universe, in all its stunning complexity, is revealing to us, then does our simplicity of heart surely seem all the more appealing, all the more essential, all the more persuasive and credible, all the more available.
Nevertheless, many people find ways to obscure our natural sense of awe and displace our natural sense of gratitude to which the Universe -- and our Creator -- call us.
Too often do we miss the beauty and grace of Creation. Too often do we stifle our appreciation for the mysteries in our Creator’s constant epiphanies, mysteries clothed in beauty all around us, revealed to us in the stunning raiment of our Milky Way and its splendid, overwhelming presence.
Some people want to obscure simple truth and stifle quiet beauty. They disdain awe, belittle gratitude and dismiss our natural responses to incalculable beauty. And, when people scurry into fictive denial and pride-filled avoidance, their problems are compounded, even though awe and gratitude can bestow upon them hopeful hearts and peaceful minds.
Awe and gratitude are graces from God, gifts freely given by God, calls to share Divine insight, invitations to relish His Presence. God’s grace is meant to inspire in us moments of simple resignation and acknowledgement that we are children of our Creator, His children … and nothing less.
Awe and gratitude reveal to us that the Universe is a constant invitation, a vast panoply of God’s Revelation, a never-ending declaration of His Love. Awe and gratitude are Divine gifts which God generously hands us – for free.
Gazing at the night sky, looking back into the mystery of time, stilled and humbled in wonderment of God’s Creation, we are then left with the quietly comforting reality that grace -- God's grace -- is everywhere for us to see and accept.
We have only to look upward some starry night and allow awe and gratitude to seep into our minds and hearts, so that we may willingly become more grateful to our Creator, more in awe of His gifts to us -- more loving to those around us and, thus, more fully human….. as He intends now, and has always intended for us --- from the very beginning, when time began.
Spero News columnist Daniel Boland PhD is a psychologist and author.