The Great Joke

God is definitely a Joker. Peter Duggan's Artoon: Michelangelo from The Guardian
God is definitely a Joker. Peter Duggan’s Artoon: Michelangelo from The Guardian

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. … And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker.”
Moby Dick, Chapt. 49, by Herman Melville (1859)

I know that Melville here was talking about the effect that those people risking life and limb come to experience in the height of danger; the “free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy” that life-threatening experiences engender. But even without physical danger there have been times — often in the midst of psychological or emotional tribulations but sometime even when all is well with the world — that I have had that feeling that the Universe is some Great Joke… And that the joke is on me.

It’s not necessarily a bad feeling. After all, I don’t mind being the butt of a joke… As long as it’s a good one.

But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe those times where you feel that everything is a joke is a faint understanding of how infinitesimally small everything you experience, think, feel and perceive actually matters in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say that we are unimportant. But when you put our individual lives beside the Universe as a whole, how laughable and ludicrous it is to think that whatever is going on in our lives is the be all, end all of… of anything.

It really is quite funny when you think about it. No, really. Let’s think about it for a moment. Consider the three images I have included in this post’s header image…

A photo of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away.
A photo of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away.

The Pale Blue Dot (The Solar System): The first image is a photo of our planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from 3.7 billion miles away as the spacecraft was leaving our solar system. From this distance Earth appeared as a single blueish-white pixel in a band of light scattered by the camera’s optics.

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan (1994)

An illustration of what our own galaxy might look like and the approximate location of our sun within it.
An illustration of what our own galaxy might look like and the approximate location of our sun within it.

The Galaxy: The middle image is an illustration of our own Milky Way galaxy, with an arrow pointing at the region where our sun exists on the outer edge of one spiral arm. Each dot is a star like our sun. There are thought to be 100 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy, a galaxy which is not significantly large compared to some we have observed. Certainly many if not most of those stars have their own cluster of planets orbiting around them. How many of those planets are like our own? How many of those planets, however strange, might harbor life forms that, like us, consider their lives and think that they actually matter in the big scheme of things?

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1995)

A photo of one very small, visually dark spot of the sky by the Hubble space telescope, showing thousands of distant galaxies.
A photo of one very small, visually dark spot of the sky by the Hubble space telescope, showing thousands of distant galaxies.

The Hubble Extreme Deep Field (XDF) The Universe: This image, released in 2012, was compiled from photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of one very small, dark spot of the sky1, the area of which was much, much smaller than the amount of the sky covered by the full moon. The Hubble telescope essentially took a 23 day exposure of this area, letting the incoming light “burn in” to the photo, in order to see as far as it could and pick out the faintest bits of light in that visibly dark bit of sky.

Practically every speck and smear of light in this photo is a galaxy like our own Milky Way. There are approximately 5,500 galaxies in this image. If you were to take that as the average number or galaxies in every similar sized portion of the sky and use that to extrapolate the total number of galaxies, the result is around 176 billion galaxies in the universe. But remember these are the galaxies in just the closest portion of the observable universe. If we exposed the image for longer, might we see even more galaxies even dimmer and farther away? And the theories are that the Universe is so big that there are galaxies so far away that their light will never reach us. What’s more, the section of sky photographed in the XDF was specifically selected to be a blank patch of featureless sky, clear of any large, nearby galaxies so that we might be able to “see” farther. So it’s probably safe to assume that the area shown in the XDF is of a region where the density of galaxies is less, perhaps far less than elsewhere.

So how many stars are there in the universe? One astronomical professor, David Kornreich, once made what he said was likely a gross underestimation of the number of stars in the Universe. He used a rough estimate of 10 trillion galaxies in the universe, and multiplied that times the 100 billion stars which is the low estimate of the number of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. The result is 100 octillion stars, or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, or a “1” with 29 zeros after it.

So, the thought that what I am experiencing at any moment… I, just one person, on one planet, surrounding just one of all those stars… The thought that my experiences are significant in any way, is truly the biggest joke of all.

So instead, go out and enjoy the joke. Experience as much of the Universe as you can — no matter how “good” or “bad” it may seem at the time — knowing that the Universe really is an amazing thing, and that you are here to experience even the smallest infinitesimal fraction of it is also rather amazing. Go out, be amazed, and laugh at the Great Joke.

Footnotes

  1. When looking up at the sky there are 180º degrees (º) from one horizon to the opposite horizon, with the zenith, directly overhead, being at 90º. Each degree contains 60′ arcminutes (‘). The full moon covers about 30′ arcminutes. The area of the sky shown in the XDF image covers a rectangle 2′ x 2.3’ arcminutes.]

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