In 1925, astronomer Edwin Hubble published his findings—based on observations made through the largest telescope of its time, the 100-inch Hooker telescope at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory—proving that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the universe, and that there are billions of other galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars. Furthermore, he asserted, the observable universe is not static, it’s expanding, a conclusion that led to the wide confirmation and acceptance in the scientific community of the so-called Big Bang theory.
In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble telescope 320 miles into space. 20 years later, the public can now see for itself what the Hubble telescope and the scientists who use it have seen—not just in photos, but in the most spectacular fashion allowed by current projection technology, the IMAX dome at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Hubble , the 50-minute Omnivision film currently playing at the SMM, offers an unprecedented journey to the edge of the knowable universe. If you are at all interested in life’s biggest questions—Is there a God? Why do we exist? Is there life elsewhere? Is human life special? —it is an experience that should not be missed.
You know that feeling of awe and dismay you get when you’re camping in the Boundary Waters and the sky is filled with an unimaginable number of stars: awe that there is so much out there, dismay that there’s even more out there than you can possibly imagine? Multiply that feeling by 100 billion or so and you’ll begin to appreciate the disorientation many people are likely to have after seeing Hubble . We all know it’s just a film, and even after the most compelling movie people are supposed to leave the theater and resume their normal lives. But if, after seeing Hubble , you give even a sliver of thought to the door of perception through which you’ve just peeked, it’s possible your life (or what you think of as your life) will never be the same again.
Before the money shots, you’ll have to sit through 40 minutes of history about NASA, the telescope, and the brave astronauts who have fixed and maintained it over the past 20 years—but the wait is worth it. Hubble’s magnificent eye literally takes you to the edge of time, where light generated 10 billion years ago is now reaching Earth. In addition to eye-popping images of nebulas and galaxies throughout the universe, it introduces you to numbers (billions of galaxies, trillions of stars) that are mind-bogglingly huge. Huge beyond comprehension. So huge that understanding what they really mean is going to take us (human beings) some time.
(Hubble photo of the Omega Centauri star cluster)
Whether you’re a religious person or not, Hubble invites some profound reflection, because either way you look at it—God’s creation or a spontaneous explosion of godless quantum physics—the universe is a miracle. If you are religious, the film is likely to confirm your belief in the infinite glory of God. If you are an atheist, agnostic, or humanist, it will likely amplify that nagging notion of cosmic insignificance, though it may also add some urgency to the notion that Earth is the only hotel in the universe for human life, so we’d better take care of it.
The way we see the universe has a direct impact on how we see ourselves, so how the images from the Hubble telescope inform and challenge our knowledge of the universe is likely to have a direct effect on our evolving view of the meaning and purpose of life on Earth. It was only a few hundred years ago that Galileo was imprisoned for claiming to have scientific proof that the earth revolves around the sun—and it’s a safe bet that knowledge gleaned from Hubble’s images is going to slowly but drastically alter our perception of ourselves and the universe. For many scientists and physicists, it already has.
Indeed, as astonishing as Hubble’s images are, and as grand as the philosophical questions these images beg may be, they are nothing compared to ideas and theories that today’s scientists, particularly physicists, are beginning to openly discuss as potential keys to understanding the universe. To cite just one example, Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design , declares both God and philosophy dead (again), and claims that he and his fellow physicists are now holding the torch of truth. Fittingly enough, God’s death comes about from natural causes, through such mind-warping ideas as M-theory, which, among other things, posits that our universe is not the only universe in existence; it’s only one universe among many, all of which are co-existing at the same time, simultaneously playing out various possibilities of physics, creating an unknown number of parallel universes.
The television show Fringe —in which two parallel but slightly different universes exist simultaneously in different dimensions—is based on this idea. But weird as Fringe is, it doesn’t begin to reflect how bizarre things in this world really are, according to Hawking and his ilk. For example, says Hawking, it is entirely possible for new universes to spontaneously emerge all by themselves; no help from an omnisciently intelligent creator is required. This is an apparent retreat from the views he espoused in his best-selling 1988 book, A Brief History of Time , a more in line with the direction he was already heading in 2001's The Universe in a Nutshell . If you take what Hawking says seriously, though, it means he's pulling a Galileo on us, proposing a description of reality that directly conflicts with the version to which most people adhere. In another time, Hawking would be jailed for his heresy; in our time, he may end up winning a Nobel Prize.
The cultural conversation between science and religion will continue long after Hubble’s batteries die, but before that happens, go see Hubble , the movie. Even if the philosophical implications don’t intrigue you, the film also reminds us what a magnificent technological achievement the Hubble telescope itself is, launched as it was before the Internet even existed, back when this country was capable of imagining and building seemingly impossible machines that did more than play apps and music, all for a mere $1.5 billion. If we did it once, we can do it again, but it will take leadership of the sort that has been hard to come by of late. Cosmologists may be interested in finding out if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but the more pressing problem is finding intelligent life on this planet. Every year, it seems harder and harder to find.
Hubble continues at the Science Museum of Minnesota through Feb. 17, 2011.
(Hubble photo of the Tarantula Nebula)