Those of us who dwell in cities often miss a most rewarding experience: the sense of humility given by a starry night. The smoke of factory chimneys and automobile exhaust, the angular profiles of tall buildings and the glare of neon lights all contribute to dim our vision of the night-time sky. None of us, however, but especially those of us who live in rural surroundings, can escape at least some contact with the awful grandeur of the heavens. We proud creatures are continually wrapped up in the thought of our own importance. We make our abode on the face of the earth and alter that face to suit our needs. WE are bigger and more powerful than many other creatures and, although some others are bigger than we, our intelligence enables us to control them, too. Sometimes, however, we become aware of the star studded dome above our heads, an inconceivably immense gulf in which the huge globe we call our home is nothing but a minnow swimming on its insignificant way, then our everyday surroundings take on an entirely different perspective and our sense of self importance falls away. The universe of stars is so staggeringly large that our imagination wears itself out in wonder.
Is it possible to conceive of the vast distances which comprise our universe? No, man is capable of measuring these distances and expressing them in numbers, but to visualize them is far beyond the capacity of our puny minds. Nevertheless, it is a richly rewarding experience to attempt this, if only to realize our own limitations and the glory of God’s creation.
We are accustomed to speak in terms of miles, but the mile is a far too clumsy tool for expressing the distances between us and the stars. A more imaginative means is the speed of light. We say that Chicago is so many miles away, but we may also say that it is so many hours away, meaning it takes that many hours to travel there. Similarly, we may say the sum is 93 million miles away, but that huge number means very little.
Think of how fast light travels. When you turn the switch on your reading lamp, you don’t have to wait for the light to strike your book. It is there seemingly instantly. In fact, the speed of light is so great that in one second it can travel around the earth seven times. Now this same light, which laughs at the size of the earth, requires eight minutes for the journey from the sun to us. But even eight minutes is a mere pleasure jaunt. The sun is a close neighbor on the scale of the universe. When we look at the stars, we see bodies which are infinitely farther removed from us than is the sun. The sun, after all, is just a middle-sized star, no brighter than thousands of other stars which are visible in the sky. Try to imagine, if you can, how far away these stars must be to appear as dim as they do. The next nearest star, which is somewhat smaller than the star about which the earth rotates, the apparently tremendous sun, is at such a distance that its light requires for years to reach us. Even this star is exceptionally close. Most of the stars which we can see are exceedingly more distant. The light from most of them takes hundreds of years to bridge the gap between them and us. You may look at a particular star and say to yourself, “The light which is now entering my eyes began its journey when Columbus was sailing in the Santa Maria, and has been traveling in its tremendous velocity ever since then.” And this is not at all unusual. There is one faintly visible patch of light in the summer sky whose light cannot reach the earth until nine hundred thousand years have elapsed. Remember, too, this same light can encircle the earth seven times in one second. Can you picture to yourself the immensity of these distances? The imagination is staggered.
Again, consider the number of the stars. Abraham could not number them, and yet the total number of those which are visible without the aid of a telescope form an infinitesimal fraction of the whole. Everyone is familiar with the Milky Way, that irregular glowing stream which stretches from north to south across the dome of the heavens like a faintly luminous cloud. Even a very small telescope will reveal that this band of light is composed of a multitude of stars, faint and close together, whose total number is many times greater than that of the visible stars. Yet this whole agglomeration of distant suns is just one of billions like it throughout the universe. Our sun is inside the Milky Way, hence it appears so large to us. Other systems of stars as large as the Milky Way but at tremendously greater distances look like tiny patches of light, even in the most powerful telescopes.
Compared with the distances between them, the sizes of the stars themselves are a mere nothing. However, even the stars are overwhelmingly huge by earthly standards. The sun, a middle-sized one, can easily contain one million bodies the size of the earth. Moreover, a star in the constellation of Orion is so large that the sun could be placed at its center and there would still be enough room within the stars bulk for the earth to circle around the sun at the same distance it does now, 93 million miles.
There is no use in multiplying examples. No amount of description and measurement can convey even a remotely appropriate picture of the size of the universe. Man can measure and count but he cannot grasp the significance of his measurements. The only way to approach an appreciation of the magnitude of the universe is to feel it, to experience it. Stand by yourself some clear evening under the vast vault of the heavens and let its immensity weigh upon your soul. Only thus will the self-centered perspective born of our all-consuming interest in the earth be crushed before the awfulness and splendor of the starry heavens. It is a sobering thought, indeed, that we creatures of the dust occupy such a tiny comer of the universe.
Here is another thought, equally sobering. It is only through the soul of man, tiny though he be, that the whole vast creation can return intelligent and loving praise to its Maker.