Byron sends along a link to an article by novelist Anthony Doerr who writes a lovely meditation on the Hubble Deep Field photograph that shows the universe to be populated with billions of galaxies. Doerr considers this picture the most important picture ever taken because it shows us how incredibly vast the cosmos is and how incredibly puny we are.
Every speck in this photo is a galaxy like our Milky Way.
In the course of his wonderment Doerr asks whether it can be "even remotely possible that our one, tiny, eggshell world is the only one encrusted with life?"
The answer to this question, according to some astronomers, is that not only is it possible, it's probable (See, for example Gonzalez and Richards' Privileged Planet or Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth), but as Doerr exclaims elsewhere in his essay, whether there are trillions of earths or just one the circumstances are mind-boggling.
It used to be the case that astronomers argued that the Copernican revolution showed the earth to be an insignificant backwater in the universe and that it was foolishness to think that we were somehow at the center of things as medieval theologians said we were. It turns out, though, that the medieval theologians were more correct than they were given credit for. It appears that the universe pretty much has to be as big as it is in order for us to be here at all.
Scientists believe that the universe started in an enormous explosion of space-time and energy about 14 billion years ago. There was no matter at the instant of that initial "Big Bang," only energy, but in the milliseconds after the Bang matter, in the form of protons and electrons, began to condense out of the enormous energy produced by the explosion, and, as the nascent cosmos expanded it cooled and the protons and electrons combined to form hydrogen gas.
The hydrogen clumped in massive spheres to form the first stars and these huge balls of gas produced in their cores a fusion furnace that generated all the other elements necessary for life. This process took billions of years and all the while the universe was expanding, growing larger and populated by galaxies of these stars.
Eventually, some of the stars themselves exploded, spewing the elements in their cores out into space in great clouds of debris. Some of this debris was captured by the gravitational field of our sun and cooled to form molten spheres which cooled further to become planets.
This happened about 5 billion years ago, and out of the star dust that became earth God fashioned living things.
Now, if this is how creation came about then it took about 10 billion years for the conditions in the universe to be such that the raw materials necessary for life were available. All that time the universe was expanding, getting bigger and more beautiful with every year that passed until man appeared. So, and this is the point, the universe has to be as old as it is and thus as vast as it is in order for life to exist in it at all.
Man may be not at the physical center of the universe but rather at the ontological or existential center. As incomprehensibly big as it is, it all exists so that man can exist. That truly is mind-boggling.RLC