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“A picture is worth a thousand words,” according to the old adage.
If that’s so, it’s difficult to calculate how many words it would take to express the worth of one of the most extraordinary pictures in human history.
It’s called the Hubble Deep Field image. It’s actually a combination of hundreds of separate exposures of the same patch of outer space taken over multiple days by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s not an exaggeration to say the resulting picture radically changed the way we see the cosmos.
Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has delivered cosmic images of unprecedented clarity and resolution. Earth-based telescopes, like the one Galileo first pointed toward the heavens some 400 years ago, are handicapped. Light that has been traveling toward us for millions or even billions of years from distant objects runs into the impasse of our atmosphere. Photons pinball around just before they reach our telescopic lenses, producing images that are fuzzy around the edges.
Hubble changed all that. As an optical observatory orbiting high above the atmosphere, it can collect and process undistorted rays of light.
Astronomers are now seeing the structure of our Milky Way galaxy as never before, not to mention galaxies that we never knew existed.
The universe is a big place, and there’s a lot to look at. Hubble can only point in one direction at a time. Astronomers, therefore, compete fiercely for “telescope time,” submitting proposals for humanity’s Eye in the Sky to zero in on this nebula or that star cluster. Only about 20% of the proposals can be honored.
There’s another option, however. Hubble’s director can decide to use some of his “discretionary time” to point the telescope in any direction he wants. That’s what happened in 1995, when Robert Williams, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, wondered what Hubble might see if given the chance to record 10 consecutive days of images of an utterly boring, randomly selected patch of outer space.
Ideally, such an uninteresting patch should feature no bright stars. No known galaxies. Nothing special that might otherwise attract attention.
Hubble was directed to just such a “boring place” not far from the Big Dipper. It was incredibly small. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson says that if you hold a penny at arm’s length and stare at the image of Abraham Lincoln, the relative size of the area photographed by the telescope would be approximately the size of Abe’s eyeball.
From December 18-28, 1995, Hubble took 342 exposures of that empty-looking space. Those images were then compiled into a single high-resolution picture.
Astronomers were staggered by the results. There were galaxies of all shapes and sizes – at least 3,000 of them. No one had suspected their existence. If the rest of the cosmos in all directions had just as many galaxies, there would be up to 50 million of these massive bodies, each boasting something on the order of 100 billion stars.
So, maybe the scientists who randomly picked the Deep Field simply got lucky. Maybe they just happened to stumble onto the Mother Collection of All Galaxies. Three years later they turned Hubble in the exact opposite direction and photographed what became known as Deep Field South, a tiny patch of celestial real estate in the constellation Fornax. The results were the same.
But that’s nothing.
In 2003, the telescope took a series of even more detailed photos that came to be known as the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field. The image, which appears above, revealed some 10,000 heretofore unknown galaxies in a patch representing just 1/32,000,000th of the sky. If those numbers represent reality in every direction, that means there are somewhere between 100 billion and two trillion (that’s “trillion” with a “t”) galaxies in the cosmos.
The universe is a very big place, indeed.
Check out this remarkable video, created by NASA, which attempts to describe some of what we have learned from the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field initiative.
What does all this mean for those who believe in a Creator?
Prior to the 20th century, skeptics often claimed that the universe was too small for people to believe in God. If God was really “great and powerful,” he would have fashioned something far more spectacular than the sun, moon, a few thousand stars, and a handful of planets and comets.
Then came astronomy’s technological revolution, most of which has happened during our lifetimes. Now skeptics have changed their tune. These days they assert that the universe is far too big for a so-called God to give a rip about the inhabitants of a single blue planet orbiting a medium-sized star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy that turns out to be merely one of many billions.
Small universe, big universe. Interestingly, the most important data point hasn’t changed over the centuries.
That would be human beings – men and women who, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, are made in the image of the Creator. So far we have observed nothing in the universe remotely as complex as the brain you are currently using to take in this reflection. Scientists who embrace a materialistic view of origins remain confident that one day we will be able to explain how such an organ came about by entirely random, natural processes. So far that seems to require more faith than believing that a Divine Architect is in fact the source of personal consciousness.
In the meantime, it’s hard to top the sentiments of the Hebrew poet who wrote these words:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are humans that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
Even 3,000 years ago, thoughtful people were wondering why the God who crafted such a spectacular night sky would bother with bit players like us.
But he does.
Which gives us every reason to believe his love is even more miraculous than the cosmic wonders that just seem to go on and on.
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