A few years ago, I made a trip to the Mount Wilson observatory high above Pasadena, California. It’s where some of the greatest discoveries of 20th century astronomy took place.
It’s also where we humans got taken down a peg or two from our lofty, self-awarded importance in the cosmos. Not that Galileo and Copernicus and didn’t give us a well-deserved kick in the ass by putting the sun at the center of our solar system. But it’s at Mount Wilson where we really got a good booting up the rear.
You see, up until the 1920s, most astronomers didn’t even know there were galaxies. There was just a very special planet called Earth floating in an endless universe.
Along comes upstart Edwin Hubble working on the newly installed 100-inch telescope and he turns astronomy on its head by discovering that the fuzzy patches in the sky that everyone else had called “spiral nebulae,” weren’t gaseous clouds inside our Milky Way. They were separate galaxies* millions of light years away. And there were billions of them.
Humans had just learned that the universe was a very big place. Far larger than anyone had ever imagined.
Astronomers and cosmologists were thrilled. The human race, however, was beginning to feel a tad unimportant.
As if this finding wasn’t bad enough, Hubble added insult to injury in a paper published in 1929, announcing an even more shocking finding: the universe was expanding.** The idea that the cosmos was eternal, unchanging and reassuringly dull, was dead wrong.
Not only was our conception of the universe wrong, but it threw out another unsettling idea: it seemed to be flying apart. Most galaxies were moving away from each other, and those at the furthest reaches of the known universe were moving away at even higher velocities.
The universe was careening out of control.
There it was in a horrible, little nutshell: the universe was not all about us. In fact, it had nothing whatsoever to do with us. In less than a decade, we had gone from our smug, safe and comfy position in a galaxy that was the center of the universe to nothing more than tiny, insignificant life forms living on a laughably small planet that was no more than a speck of dust, helplessly hurtling through an incomprehensibly large universe that would either rip itself to shreds in the far future, eventually contract back on itself and end in a fiery explosion—or worse—just expand forever until it became a soul-annihilating frozen deadness in lonely, cold blackness.
The human psyche has never been the same since.
It’s probably a good thing that most humans are blissfully unaware of recent theories that say there may be billions of universes. Perhaps an infinite number.
Let’s just keep it our little secret for now.
(Just in case you weren’t feeling small and insignificant after reading this post, this video will give you an even more terrifyingly real perspective. Enjoy!)
*Even though he proved their existence, Hubble refused to call his discovery galaxies. This was due to the fact that he linked the term to a rival astronomer Harlow Shapley, who also worked atop Mt. Wilson and was kind of a dick to Hubble and his theory of separate galaxies outside ours. Shapley’s taunts may have been sour grapes caused by the fact that he had to work with the 60-inch telescope while Hubble got the sexy 100-inch.
**I know, I know. Georges Lemaître had come to the same conclusion, some say, two years earlier.