The discovery was stunning. For 10 days astronomers had carefully trained the Hubble Space Telescope on a tiny patch of sky that appeared no larger than a grain of sand held at arm's length. Focusing on a spot near the Big Dipper where the view wouldn't be obstructed by nearby planets or stars, the scientists used the giant orbiting telescope's instruments to methodically gather 342 exposures, averaging 15 to 40 minutes long. They patiently recorded minuscule points of light 4 billion times fainter than what can be detected by the human eye.
They hoped to find answers to fundamental questions about the universe. How vast is it? How far might we be able to see in our search for galaxies billions of light-years from our own? Could they find clues to the origin of the universe and our own Milky Way galaxy?
The astronomers were awestruck when the hundreds of images were combined and the fruits of their labors were revealed. Before them was an astounding image. The tiny speck of sky scrutinized in such careful detail by man's most powerful telescope contained a kaleidoscope of hundreds upon hundreds of galaxies of various shapes, sizes and colors. Looking through a "tube" of sky roughly the diameter of a human hair, they counted no fewer than 1,500 galaxies.
Exploring the detectable limits of time and space, they concluded that the faintest galaxies they had recorded were more than 10 billion light-years away. Some of the brighter ones were quite close, only 2.5 billion light-years distant.
Even more astonishing, scientists concluded that the universe contains far more galaxies than we can imagine—at least 100 billion and quite possibly far more. j; How big are those numbers? To put them in perspective, if you counted ■ galaxies at the rate of one per second for 24 hours, it would take almost 32 years
This Hubble Space Telescope photo, taken of a tiny portion of the sky near the Big Dipper, shows galaxies up to 10 billion light-years from our own. Based on the number of galaxies visible in this photo, astronomers estimated that the universe contains at least 100 billion galaxies.
to reach 1 billion. You would spend almost 3,200 years to reach 100 billion, and again that is only the estimated number of galaxies in the universe. When we consider the number of individual stars and planets making up all these galaxies, the mind reels. The average Milky Way-sized galaxy is thought to contain 200 billion stars and untold numbers of planets.
Such amazing numbers quickly outgrow our limited comprehension and imagination (see also "Our Awesome Universe: How Big Is Big?" on page 15).
Fundamental questions about origins
Who among us has not gazed up into the nighttime sky and wondered why we are here? What is our place in the universe? What is the purpose of life?
At a time of an astounding increase in knowledge about the universe, philosophers, scientists and other thinkers ask these same questions. The assumptions they have drawn from traditional scientific understanding and thoughtful reasoning have been tried and found wanting.
British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, author of the best-seller A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black. Holes, considers some of these vital questions: "We find ourselves in a bewildering world," he writes. "We want to make sense of what we see around us and to ask: What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from?" (1988, p. 171).
People have asked questions relating to our existence since the dawn of history. But rarely have they been so well expressed as by the eminent scientists, historians and philosophers of our age.
Professor Hawking does not claim to have all the answers. But through his extraordinary scientific knowledge and ability—especially in the fields of astrophysics, cosmology (the study of the nature of the universe) and mathematics—lie asks the right questions.
He is not the only scientist to ponder these fundamental questions. The late Carl Sagan (of the 1980 TV series Cosmos), also a brilliant scientist and best-selling author, wrote in his introduction to Hawking's book: "We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world. We give little thought to the machinery that generates the sunlight that makes life possible, to the gravity that glues us to an earth that would otherwise send us spinning off into space, or to the atoms of which we are made and on whose stability we fundamentally depend" (p. ix).
Sagan dedicated his life to bringing scientific thought to the general public. Notice another of his observations: "Except for children (who don't know enough not to ask
Why were you born? Why do you exist? People have asked these crucial questions for centuries, but few have been able to find the answers.
Asking the Crucial Questions 5
the important questions), few of us spend much time wondering why nature is the way it is; where the cosmos came from, or whether it was always here..." (ibid.).
Perhaps most of us feel unqualified to weigh the mysteries of the universe, thinking we would be wasting our time. But that's not true. This intellectual curiosity comes with the territory of being human. You should ask the questions, and you should seek out intelligible answers.
Professor Hawking emphasized this point in the last pages of A Brief History of Time: "If we do discover a complete theory [that explains everything], it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist." He concludes, "If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God" (p. 175, emphasis added).
Noted British historian Paul Johnson, in his book A History of the Jews, also asks some of humanity's most important questions: "What are we on earth for? Is history merely a series of events whose sum is meaningless? ... Or is there a providential plan of which we are, however humbly, the agents?" (1997, p. 2).
Is this life all there is, or is there something more? If there is something more, how should awareness of that something impact your life? Are we missing a vital perspective when we review the pages of human history?
These are fundamental questions indeed. Have you squarely faced them? Why are we here? Is there a purpose for our lives? What is our destiny, and is that destiny inextricably linked with the existence of God? We need to ask and seek answers to these questions. Their answers have serious consequences that should profoundly affect the way we live.
But where do we begin? How do we answer that most basic of all questions: Does God exist? Is He real? If so, what is He like? Does He have a plan for you?
We can find the answers to these questions. Evidence of God's existence is both abundant and available. Let's look at some of the evidence, asking and answering questions so basic to our search for meaning and purpose.
The gaseous "pillars of creation," photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, are thought to be a birthplace for newly forming stars.
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