Friday, 25 May 2007

On the Sun, space vessels and our place in the universe

By accident I came across a remarkable image this week. It is a photograph of the Sun taken from earth by a French amateur astronomer using a big telescope, a good camera and various other bits and pieces. I would post the image on my blog but there are pretty strong legal warnings about doing so.

Before I give you the URL, let me describe it. Probably 99.99% of the photograph is pretty unremarkable. The enormous golden yellow disc of the Sun covers most of the image and there is a narrow frame provided by the blackness of space. Yet it is the tiny remainder of the photograph that is striking. Against the disc of the Sun you can see two miniscule objects: one a single small line; the other a tiny agglomeration of microscopic black rectangles. They are so small that you might feel it could just be dust on the screen of your monitor. But when you stare closer you realise that they are a space shuttle (in fact, Atlantis) and the International Space Station, caught as silhouettes as they transited the Sun. Anyway, either now, or after reading this blog, do take a look at it.

I refer to this not just because it is an awesome and utterly unforgettable image, but because it seems to me to sum up in a single image one of the great paradoxes of the human race. On the one hand, we see a record of our astonishing triumph in creating a lasting structure in space and regularly supplying it from earth. Let's raise a cheer for Homo sapiens! But on the other hand, when you look at the picture in its entirety and you realise that behind these almost infinitesimally small creations is the overwhelming vastness of the solar disc, the overriding emotion generated is that of humility. After all, the Sun is still 93,000,000 miles away and it is but one of an almost infinite number of stars in the cosmos. Yes, we have done awesome things, but on the scale of the Cosmos we are still the tiniest of creatures.

I sometimes think that there is a curious parallelism with the growth of human knowledge and our awareness of the size of the cosmos. When the only astronomical tools the human race had were our own unaided eyes, the universe seemed awfully vast and almost overwhelming. Now, we know so much more, yet somehow with the Hubble telescope and similar instruments, we have found the universe to be no smaller. It is as if the further up the technological and cultural ladder we climb, so the horizon retreats to keep pace. The stars kept our ancestors humble before God, they still do.