DOUBLE HUBBLE--TWICE THE WONDER

By Gary Suttle


The next time you’re outdoors at night under a cloudless sky, look for the familiar "Big Dipper." Outstretch an arm toward the Dipper’s handle and pretend to hold a grain of sand between your thumb and first finger. In this region, the Hubble Space Telescope photographed just such a sand-grained size pinhole of space. The 10 day exposure captured glimmers of light four billion times fainter than the dimmest object visible to the naked eye. The light came from galaxies 8 to 10 billion light years beyond the Earth (to grasp an inkling of that unbelievable distance, recall that light travels at 186,282 miles per second and covers almost 6 trillion miles in one light year).

The image, taken in December 1995, contains over a thousand galaxies. The mind-boggling distances and the multicolored galaxies, strewn like sparkling jewels on black velvet, leave viewers agog --
 
 










In October 1998, scientists repeated the feat by aiming the telescope at a speck of space in the Southern Hemisphere constellation Tucana. Cameras installed by astronauts since the the first Deep Field image utilized better technology to peer even farther into space, up to 12 billion light years away. The second Deep Field photograph also reveals numerous previously unseen galaxies and looks as spectacular as the first--
 
 










Although the images covers only a minuscule fraction of the night sky, they probably represent the typical distribution of galaxies in space because the cosmos, statistically, looks the same in all directions. The Deep Field discoveries lead astronomers to extrapolate that the entire universe contains between 50 and 100 billion galaxies! Scientists will spend years analyzing the photographs to gain a better understanding of how galaxies form and evolve.

Meanwhile, Pantheists gaze at the images with wonderment and joy for reasons of their own.

The breathtaking beauty, the unimaginable vastness, the incomprehensible time spans depicted by the Deep Field images fill us with boundless awe. They affirm our belief in the infinite wonder of  Nature, and its creative forces.

Penetrating a distance of 12 billion light years--about 70 billion trillion miles--the Space Telescope reveals an utterly stupendous universe, and an utterly natural one, with no signs of a supernatural god or heaven. Biblical theology, developed when the Earth was thought to be the center of the universe, envisioned a man-like god in a heaven above the clouds.  Now we know our Earth is a dust mote amid billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, just one of multi-billions of galaxies in the cosmos. Since Pantheists equate divinity with the universe as a whole, they rejoice in the latest findings of science because knowledge increases wonder.

Yet Pantheists aren't smug, but rather humble, given the reality of Nature.  Biblical authors reflected the knowledge of their time.  Similarly, until the 1920's, astronomers thought our Milky Way Galaxy comprised the entire universe!  Then Edwin Hubble--the Space Telescope's namesake--discerned galaxies outside our own.  Now the Deep Field images increase by billions the estimated number of galaxies.  What will the next generation of space telescopes find?  We will learn more, surely, but Pantheists realize that Nature's ultimate mysteries lie beyond our wildest imagining, and always will.

The countless stars and galaxies suggest the possibility of life, perhaps teeming life, elsewhere in the universe. Yet so far we have seen no authenticated sign of other life forms in the cosmos. This realization makes life on Earth all the more precious and sacred, and the extinction of any life form all the more abhorrent.

While humankind has wreaked great harm, our species also has wrought great good. The Hubble Space Telescope reflects our ingenuity and our ability to delve deeply into the marvels of life.  At our best, we become conscious that the universe is divine, and so are we.

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For more information on the Hubble Space Telescope and its exciting discoveries see:

Hubble Vision, Further Adventures with the Hubble Space Telescope, Second Edition, by Carolyn Collins Petersen & John C. Brandt, 1998.

Hubble’s Universe, A Portrait of Our Cosmos, by Simon Goodwin, 1997.

Hubble, A New Window to the Universe, by Daniel Fischer and Hilar Duerbeck, 1996.

For recent pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on the Internet go to http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pictures.html

For a poster of the Hubble Deep Field  images from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, ($11.95 + 3.50 postage), call
1-800-335-2624.


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Photographs courtesy Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STSCI) and NASA.

Copyright © 2000 Gary Suttle