Saturday, October 27, 2012

We Are Small, and Humble...and Ultrarunning

Over at the blog Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait does a pretty commendable job of first praising the knowledge provided by the Hubble space telescope, and then weaving it into a humbling soliloquy on our place in the universe:

And when you do, look at what Hubble shows us. That tiny region of the sky – easily blocked by a grain of sand held at arm’s length – contains thousands of galaxies, each a sprawling city of billions of stars. It represents a relatively random part of the sky, so you can expect to see something like it no matter where you point a telescope… and that picture shows just one 24-millionth of the entire sky.

The implication is clear: there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe. That in turn means there are sextillions of stars, each a Sun, and many, if not most, circled by a retinue of planets.

It’s the most ironic aspect of any science I know: it crushes my sense of scale and ego into dust, but also fills me with wonder and amazement that we can know such things, and be a part of it.

As is so often the case in science, you don’t know what you’ll get when you build a new instrument. You build it for one reason or for many, but later on new applications arise, new ways to use it. And sometimes, years down the road, it’s utilized in a just such a new way which profoundly changes how you see the Universe, how you see yourself and your place in it, and in a way you had may have only had an inkling of when you started out. The Hubble Deep Fields are perfect examples of this.

We knew intellectually the Universe was deep, and our place in it infinitesimal yet rare and beautiful. But Hubble showed that to us.

The link to Ultrarunning is not on a grand, universe-wide scale.  But rather the fact that every time we head out to our trails for a run, we share that sense of awe and wonder, of belonging yet being such an infinitesimal cog.  Our presence is ephemeral and fleeting, and the bigger natural world proceeds apace with or without us.

I am reminded again of some memorable lines from a very smart guy who lived and died a couple centuries ago:

     To see a World in a Grain of Sand
     And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
     Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
     And Eternity in an hour.

[William Blake, 1757-1827, Auguries of Innocence]

These are the thoughts I think when I am out on my beloved trails.


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