Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Hubble’s Humbling Discoveries

Twenty-five years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space. A quarter century later, it is still producing vivid pictures of the vast beyond and connecting earthlings to an ever-expanding universe.

Hubble-TelescopeWe may overlook the enormity of the discoveries enabled by the Hubble telescope, including “dark energy,” the mysterious force that is accelerating universal expansion.

It may take more than Astronomy 101 to make sense of these remarkable discoveries. Hubble estimated the age of our universe at 13 billion earth years, give or take a billion. For the first time, we could see what astronomers call “deep universe.” Hubble aided the scouting trip for extrasolar planets that possess the raw materials of life as we know it.

Following a plot line in a science fiction novel, Hubble confirmed the existence of black holes, dubbed “sleeping monsters,” that swallow anything that wanders nearby their galaxies.

Hubble captured images of gamma ray bursts and identified their source as the collapse of massive stars. Hubble tracked the “homes” of quasars, which can outshine stars, in the centers of galaxies. It also photographed the death rattles of stars.

hubble2Telescopic imagery confirmed the existence of proto-planetary disks of gas and dust that cluster around young stars awaiting their turn to become solar systems like ours. Hubble marked where comets pounded the surface of Jupiter, leaving huge black planetary scars.

These and other remarkable finds have slowly altered the way humans on earth view the rest of the universe. To some, the discoveries have made human existence seem even punier on the greater scheme of things. To others, they have glorified mankind as an exceptional life form, delicately carved by a divine being.

Regardless of your philosophical perspective, Hubble is a game-changer. Much like the basic telescope that refuted the prevailing thesis of the sun circling the earth, Hubble has set our world on its ear. We no longer can believe humans are alone in the vast expanse of outer space. There may not be green “men” out there, but life in some form in all likelihood exists, perhaps on multiple planets.

instrumentsAt a minimum, the bulk of Hubble discoveries debunk any notion of an anthropomorphic universe. We are part of a great wheel, but we aren’t the captain of the wheel. We may not even qualify as the hamsters.

A glimpse into the depth of space has whet the appetite of a new generation to step foot on part of it during their lifetimes. Mars is the most proximate target of human adventure, unless alien life lands here first. (Some would say it already has, but that’s another story.)

For people who think they know it all, the Hubble telescope serves as a reminder that we as a species know very little about the big picture. We have trouble conquering diseases like polio and tuberculosis, let alone comprehend the universe.

The humbling realities revealed by Hubble hopefully give humans perspective. Nothing is constant. Whether dark energy is a predetermined force or a random power, it is clear that change is a constant not only in our world, but in our universe.

We cannot control earthquakes or hurricanes, but we can control those things of our own making. We can take better care of our water, our soil and our air. We can value life as we know it as precious, regardless whether it is unique.

Humans can affirm they are part of something big. They are free to attribute that bigness to whatever they choose. They also would be wise to acknowledge that in the face of that bigness, small actions still matter.


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