Infinity times infinity
On Galileo's telescope, the addiction to pseudoscience, and how wonder should be leaving every last one of us slack-jawed in astonishment every single day
On a clear night in the open country, removed from the light pollution of the city, a person can engage in one of the most time-honored of human experiences: Staring up at the sky and counting the night stars.
■ So universal and eternal is the tradition that the Book of Genesis contains the Almighty's promise to Abraham to give him descendants "as countless as the stars of the sky". Even thousands of years ago, equipped with nothing but the naked eye, the stars set the standard for what we humans could conceive as infinite.
■ What is different about the experience today than in the past is the astonishing power of spacefaring telescopes to help us see even farther and even more clearly into the night sky than is physically possible from here on Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope, and now the Webb Space Telescope, have forever changed hour understanding of just how vast and infinite the night sky really is.
■ One of the amusing exercises in mathematics is to ponder whether there could be varying degrees of infinity. If a formula produced an infinite number, would multiplying that formula by two create an even bigger value for infinity? In a sense, surely it would have to. Yet in another sense, it would be impossible to make the infinite larger.
■ What the space telescopes have done is effectively multiplied the infinity of the past (the stars we could see with the naked eye, which themselves seemed limitless) by some number much larger. The complexity of what we can see is utterly stupefying.
■ Astronomy isn't the only field where technological and scientific improvements have vastly expanded our ability to comprehend things that are very real about our universe. The granularity of satellite images obtained from the GOES satellites is almost infinitely more detailed than the views human beings had a generation prior. Yet even that imagery was quite literally infinitely better than what we could see of Earth from space prior to 1959, since there were no satellite images to send.
■ Radar images now penetrate the ground. The human genome can be completely sequenced. Computers can simulate and predict the structures of proteins. These developments aren't just progress; they violate the boundaries of what any human could have reasonably imagined a century ago.
■ We should be living in a period of the most expansive, universally-held sense of wonder ever conceived in human history. We should scarcely be able to get through the day without standing around slack-jawed in complete awe. Yet, lamentably, with all of this quite literally infinite wonder available to us, there are people who are more bound and determined than ever to choose to wallow in pseudoscience, hoaxes, shams, and quackery.
■ A mere glimpse at a single picture of a cluster of galaxies taken by the Webb telescope would have been more astonishing to Galileo than the sum total of everything he saw in his entire life with his own telescope. What he saw was far more than anyone had seen before, but what we can see now really is infinitely more mind-boggling.
■ Just try to imagine showing a picture of the "Pillars of Creation" to the Greek astronomers of 2,500 years ago who first resolved that the Earth was round. What we might breeze past, scrolling mindlessly through social media, would have been enough to melt the consciousness of our forebears.
■ We are so awash in wonder -- a wonder that is infinitely greater than the infinite that existed before -- that we are like the proverbial fish that doesn't know it is wet.
■ No one can be forced to reckon with this wonder. Each of us has to come to it on our own terms. But what a literally wondrous time to be alive. What we can see and understand and experience of the world is so vastly greater than anything any previous generation could have imagined that the degree of change alone bends the capacity of the human mind.
■ If the trajectory of things thus far is any indication, the change and expansion yet to come is even greater. We will be somebody's backwards and ignorant "ancient civilization" someday. It's on our shoulders to be humble enough -- and open enough -- that we can be worthy of the wonder in which we are immersed.