Saturday, August 31, 2013

HUDF -- a Saturday reprise

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo (click to enlarge) is the deepest we have ever seen into space. It images an area of the sky that you could cover with the intersection of two crossed straight pins held at arm's length, in which you can see nothing with the unaided eye or even with an ordinary telescope. Everything you see in the photo is a galaxy, except for a couple of foreground stars. Peering into the apparently empty darkness, the Hubble camera soaked up faint light for a million seconds (about eleven days), letting us see back to within a few hundred million years of the universe's beginning, when time began and space swelled from nothing. What is important to recognize is that this didn't happen somewhere, it happened everywhere. The big bang happened right where you are sitting at this moment -- and everywhere else.

In a universe with no center and no boundary, one place is like every other. The galaxies scatter like faces in an anonymous crowd. The stars burn briefly and then are snuffed out like so many candles. If the physicists are right, the whole shebang is bent on infinite dispersal, a long inexorable ballooning into cold and dark.

In such a universe we must fashion our own centers, out of what the poet Seamus Heaney calls "the words of coming to rest: birthplace, roof beam, whitewash, flagstone, hearth." One by one we put those precious bricks in place, using the syntax of love, the cement of affection. If we are lucky we can shape a place to bide a while, out of the gale, as the galaxies go rushing by.

(This post originally appeared in September 2006. Seamus Heaney (1936-2013) has often appeared here.)