When I first saw this image I was blown away. I was in third year of university, studying astrophysics. For any Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans out there, this was my Total Perspective Vortex. It smeared my ego on a map so huge that I, Hal, had no meaning. This image took my personal sense of perspective and effortlessly obliterated it.
Here it is. It is known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Make sure you click though and zoom in. I’ll try and describe some of the mind smeltery below.
The tiniest specs are the oldest objects that humanity has ever laid eyes on. They are the universe’s first galaxies. We see them in this image as they were 13 billion years ago. The light from these star swirls has been pegging it across the universe three million times faster than an F1 car since then – no pit stops. The radiation has literally passed though changes in time and space – arriving at the Hubble detector stretched and tired. When you look at this photo, you are peering in through Time’s sitting room window. Every generation that’s ever existed is sitting round the fire (except those future kids).
It’s Small, but also, really Big
The patch of sky shown is the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length to the heavens: tiny. The difference of scales is comparable to the difference between the atomic world and ours. The galaxies in the image are gigantic, a billion-trillion meters across. Such USA deficit figures are rendered meaningless by lack of context.
Some of the faintest specs are not even galaxies, but groupings of thousands of galaxies, so far away that they appear as single points of light. These clusters are the basic units used by cosmologists to map out the universe as a whole (the distances between clusters are so large that gravity ceases to be the dominant force on their scale – they are driven away from each other by the overall, non-gravitational expansion of the universe). They are waypoints of reality, individual stitches in the fabric of space, yet larger than it is healthy to imagine. Like atoms, these clusters consist mainly of empty space. I always feel that the meaning of emptiness needs reconsideration.
This is the part I find a bit disturbing, so I won’t spend too much time on it. Those clusters are all hurtling away from each other at speeds which approach, and in some cases now exceed that of light. The universe is getting bigger and emptier by the second. We humans are sitting on a little blue dot in our minuscule solar system, perched on an unremarkable outer arm of the Milky Way. Along with the rest of the galaxies in The Virgo Supercluster, we are speeding away from the rest of the Universe at an ever increasing rate. The distances between clusters are too large for gravity to keep us together.
For me these absurd contrasts serve as a reminder that what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell represents only a tiny slice of reality, that there are physical dimensions to our existence that we can only describe with maths, not words. There are some physicalities which even maths has failed to conquer.
Apart from these, there are dimensions of our existence that we can’t begin to commit to numbers and for me, ultimately, these are the most important. For these dimensions there can be no “greatest photo”. They lie outside the knowable, beyond the quantifiable. Superlatives are unreliable beasts.