Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science. — Edwin Powell Hubble
I picked up a chunk of “astronaut ice cream” with my fingers and popped it into my mouth. I let the chocolate-flavored, room-temperature nugget dissolve on my tongue and concluded that the dreary dehydrated lump was no match for the cold creamy goodness of the real thing. As I made my way to a trashcan to toss the rest of my portion, I did my best to avoid being seen by the woman in the spacesuit who had given me the treat.
The last time I’d visited the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center was for their “Science Rocks” event, during which I publicly humiliated myself in front of hundreds of fellow geeks when I massacred Guitar Hero on the giant IMAX Dome. Now the place was all decked out for the premiere of the documentary, Hubble 3D (which turned out to be more like 2.5D — it was the regular film version, but watching it on the dome is as 3D as 2D can get).
Of course, I’d heard of the 12-ton Hubble Telescope hurtling along in Earth’s orbit at five miles a second. It launched when I was in junior high. At the time, I had no idea what it was all about, just that it looked kind of like a Jiffy Pop package in full bloom and that if my eyes were as powerful as the scope’s, I would be able to stand in New York and see two fireflies hovering ten feet apart in Tokyo. (I never forget an analogy that involves fireflies.)
My freshman (and only) year at San Diego State, I signed up for an astronomy class. Because I could locate Orion’s Belt in the sky, I figured I could skip the intro course and get right into the thick of the Milky Way. I was wrong. What I thought would be all stargazing and philosophizing turned out to be math. And not just any math, but crazy, Beautiful Mind–style math, like “vector analysis.” Despite the creativity I lavished on the math symbols in my homework assignments, I was given an F.
I have an insatiable appetite for nature programs and articles pertaining to neurology, biology, psychology — just about any of the “ologies.” Science is awesome, as long as I’m not the one who has to gather the data and crunch the numbers. This is exactly what is so great about the learning stations at the science center — everything is so visual and hands-on, which is how I learn best.
My understanding of the physical world is elementary. On the occasion I get to ask an expert to explain a complex physics-related concept, I request he or she do so “as though you’re speaking to a kindergartener.” When my father and I went to the “Grossology” exhibit (dubbed the “impolite science of the human body”), we were just as eager to play with the interactive displays — how burps form, why noses run — as the children beside us.
At the Hubble premiere, I stood with David and friends at the front of the line to get into the theater, behind the only two women more neurotic than me. For the next 30 minutes, the line grew and snaked back and forth within the roped off area behind us. When the doors opened, the women before me took off like gazelles, sprinting directly to the same row and area I was headed — upper deck, center. Once seated beside them, I commended them for their determination. I felt a kindred spirit; few people best me when it comes to being first in line at any theater.
I found the movie visually stunning but audibly atrocious. Don’t get me wrong, Leonardo DiCaprio did a great job narrating, but I groaned out loud at the hokey clichés and agonizing obviousness of the script. I’m no rocket surgeon, but I can draw my own conclusions about how amazing I find the scenes before me to be. “Astonishing” is a better word for Hubble’s visual trip through the stars, but even more astounding to me were thoughts of the as-
of-yet unseen marvels that await us as we develop new technological keys to unlock the portals of the universe.
Though I am able to understand multifaceted scientific postulations, some stuff will forever remain incomprehensible. One light year — the distance light travels in one year — is 5.88 trillion miles long. In one Hubble image stands a pillar of gas that is four light years, or 23.52 trillion miles tall. That’s the same height as 1.9 billion Earths stacked on top of each other. And that distance is nothing compared to the unfathomable vastness of the universe and the hundreds of billions of stars within it.
In what might have resulted in an explosion of my brain, I attempted to mentally juxtapose the astronomical with the microscopic bits of life that permeate the universe. I soon realized it was an impossible task, and I’m half convinced I would have succeeded in detonating my skull had I kept struggling to wrap my head around the extreme relativity of scale.
My inability to comprehend that which astronomers and particle physicists seem to read as easily as comic books reminded me of an article I came across in the New Yorker last year about the Amazonian Pirahã tribe. Because of their live-in-the-moment culture, the Pirahã are incapable of accepting anything outside their realm of experience. They make no art and have no words for numbers or colors or anything that storytelling might require. According to one researcher who has studied the tribe for decades, if they can’t witness it with their own eyes, it is considered xibipío, or “gone out of experience.” When missionaries attempt to turn them on to God, the Pirahã always ask, “Have you met this man?” They remain unconverted.
It was mentioned in the film that the Hubble can “see into the past.” The universe is supposedly between 13 and 14 billion years old, and the telescope can detect images 10 billion light years away. We’re not seeing those galaxies as they are now, but as they were over 5 billion years before a collapsing cloud of dust and gas formed our solar system and the Earth within it. How can we be expected, in our limited experience with all things galactic, to determine what it all means? David told me that dwelling on such unanswerable questions would only make me crazy. “Because the human brain is finite — it can’t comprehend infinity,” he said. “So, let’s say that one day we’ll be able to see to the edge of the universe — what’s a mile further? We know so little.”
When asked how the world was created, the Pirahã respond, “It has always been this way.” If “always” means “as far back as I can imagine,” then I’m with the Pirahã on this one.