Tuesday, September 26, 2006

One reason to be glad we're here

Spitzer Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy M81

As you can probably tell if you've been reading me for a while, I find lots of things in this world to complain about. But every now and then, I'm reminded of one of the many ways in which I'm very, very lucky. You, too.

When I was in high school in the 60's, I read Arthur C. Clarke's non-fiction work Profiles of the Future: an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. It's a science-fiction author's take on just how likely it is that certain things envisioned in science fiction can actually take place someday, and which ones are fundamentally impossible. He's kept updating it since then, and it's still a very interesting read.

Though I've liked Clarke's lighter short stories, his longer works I find less interesting, and his atheism and his sadly underinformed view of religious faith made his novel Childhood's End positively evil. Nevertheless, he often does produce a very handsome turn of phrase, and the following peroration at the very end of Profiles has stuck with me through the years:

Our Galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life -- a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infra-reds of dully-glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the sombre hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure the eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will not be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers that they will command.

But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of Creation; for we knew the Universe when it was young.

That's a pretty nice blessing to have received, you and I and every human being who has ever lived; we've all known the Universe when it was young. We take that blessing for granted, as we do most, but we shouldn't. So it's a good thing that there's a reminder of it right overhead on every clear night of our lives.