Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Seeing with Hubble's Eye (Sunday Reflections for May 24, 2009)

When was the last time the service department came to you to change your oil and rotate your tires? Didn’t think so. But that essentially is what NASA did last week for the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble is now well into borrowed time and so no one is surprised that an assortment of its parts has worn out, broken down, or even become out-of-date. Hubble’s replacement is still some years away, however, so in order to prolong its life 5-10 years a billion dollar service call (compared to fixing the banks that’s like the change in your sofa cushions) seemed like a worthwhile investment.

A maintenance-and-repair mission via the space shuttle was put on the planning board a decade ago but it was cancelled after the Challenger disaster. “Too risky” NASA’s director decided. Hubble, however, is by far NASA’s biggest success story since the Apollo moon landings. After NASA got its confidence back (and a new director) it was decided to put a Hubble service visit back on the docket. While it will take some months of testing from the ground to be certain, at this point all the intended repairs and upgrades seem to have gone as planned.

The 1960s moon landing project was exciting to follow as it built to its ultimate goal. Once we got to the moon, however, public interest lagged (with the exception of the Apollo 13 near disaster). Getting there was indeed (at least) half the fun. There’s simply no hiding the fact that the moon is a big gray rock and, frankly, doesn’t make for very good TV. Hubble has been just the opposite. Getting relatively little attention during its development, it initially looked like a boondoggle when, after launch, it was discovered that its all-important mirrors had been ground incorrectly. Hubble’s first visit from the shuttle a couple years later, in effect, gave it a pair of glasses to correct its blurred vision. The fix worked and then the show began.

Hubble has performed beyond even its developers’ wildest dreams. Year after year it has sent a steady stream of jaw-dropping pictures of the planets and other objects in our own solar system and of mysteries out to the farthest reaches of the universe. The data Hubble has collected has enabled scientists’ to confirm numerous theories and propose new ones as our understanding of the universe has grown and, in some ways, gotten weirder (so that, for example, some now say we don’t live in a universe but rather a multiverse—a word, I see, is too new to be recognized by my spell checker).

Yet what Hubble has provided us is really only an appetizer, a tease. We are like Alice who watched the rabbit run through the door into the garden. She chases after him—but the door is locked! All she can do is look through the key hole. It’s such a lovely garden—how she wishes she could go there!

When put into human scale numbers, the universe’s statistics are simply mind boggling. Hubble’s pictures, however, even if we can’t really comprehend what we are looking at, provide us a hook with which we can connect ourselves to this vast and bizarre cosmic community in which we live. The thousands of hardly distinguishable points of light our ancestors have gazed at for millennia have now given way to dizzying, psychedelic colors and whirls. Even as we have been numbed by our awareness of the universe’s vast distances, Hubble has suddenly given it character, dimension, and even “personality”.

One suspicion confirmed by Hubble is that the universe’s “stuff” is not spread out evenly but rather is organized in clumps. Thus, there are vast stretches of little or nothing between those clumps. Hubble also showed, however, that beyond those gaps there is a whole lot more stuff. In one experiment Hubble was pointed at one of those empty patches and in a classic photographic trick took multiple long exposure shots of the same spot, thus allowing whatever light there was to accumulate over time. The resulting “Deep Field” photographs (example above) have forever changed our understanding of “empty space.” In Hubble’s gaze beyond this “empty lot” (about the size of a dime held at arm’s length against the night sky) appeared galaxies by the thousands.

It’s been less than a century since astronomers informed us that the Milky Way is not synonymous with the Universe. Only when the first large telescopes were built after World War I and they were able to get a closer look at those “smudgy” stars did they realize they weren’t stars at all but rather massive clusters of stars—in other words, other “Milky Ways”. (The man who demonstrated conclusively the existence of other galaxies? Edwin Hubble.) And yet our own galaxy is itself so enormous only science fiction writers can envision our exploring it. Inter-galactic travel is beyond even their imagination. To realize now that our galaxy is just one among billions of others in the universe is—well, we’ve kind of run out of superlatives.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Our understanding of the heavens, and probably God as well (we’ve kind of just dropped “firmament” altogether), have changed quite a bit since the psalmist wrote those words over two millennia ago. We can’t know how literally they were originally intended and, then as now, different people probably interpreted them differently. In any case we now know “the heavens” go unimaginably far beyond that blue “firmament” over our heads and beyond the God who used to sit in his above-the-clouds palace.

For many current followers of the ancient biblical religions this has created an intellectual problem and often an emotional trauma. The fact is simply unavoidable that we can’t look at the sky in the same way our ancestors did, or at God. And yet the psalm’s old fashioned word “glorious” is not a bad one to sum up the incredible vision Hubble has given us of this universe in which we live—of “the Creation”, if you will.

“Where is God?” is the anxious question that vexes many modern believers (often forgetting the question is at least as old as the Bible). If the world’s religious traditions are right, that awe and wonder are universal human responses to experiencing the divine, then perhaps Hubble has given new depth and meaning to the psalmist’s experience. The heavens are even more “glorious” than he could ever have imagined.

The scientific search and the religious quest are often seen as being at odds but Hubble’s spectacular legacy may be to help us realize that they are not so different after all. Indeed Hubble may actually reaffirm one of the most common yet profound teachings of the great spiritual guides, that God and the holy are actually hidden all around us, as far as the eye can see.

No comments: