This evening, my parents and I were discussing the vastness of the universe. We looked at a series of photos showing first North America, then the Earth, then the Earth next to the Moon, then next to the other planets (one by one), all the planets next to the Sun, and then showing various other stars until even the Sun was maybe a pixel big (the rest of the Solar System had long-disappeared by that point).
Then came a photo of the oldest galaxies ever observed by humanity, the light of which had taken over 13 billion light years to reach us. It took the Hubble Space Telescope 4 months of zooming in on what had appeared to be empty space.
Looking at stuff like that makes one realize that the universe is unfathomably big, and that even our planet, even our solar system, even our galaxy is an incredibly small part of it. From all that, it can feel like it’s not important, in the face of all that vastness.
And yet, there is another side of it.
Let’s take your body. Recent research indicates that there are trillions of microorganisms in the average human adult’s body. We’re not sure exactly how many, but it’s a lot. For now, I’ll estimate it to be around 10 trillion. Now multiply it by 7 billion.
10^12 * 7 * 10^9 = 7 * 10^21 = 7 sextillion (American) a.k.a. 7,000 trillion (British, according to the Internet)
None of those organisms could have existed (certainly not in their current habitat) without the existence of the human race.
But wait, there’s more.
In a mountain range on a tiny continent in our tiny planet, a bunch of people collectively grow over 4,000 varieties of a species known as the potato. The vast majority have not been sold, or even seen outside the region where they are grown. Many have never been documented by people outside those mountain highlands, yet there they are. And people have named each of them, after their funny shapes and cool colors and usefulness as offerings to gods and all sorts of wonderful things.
And yet, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to The Heirloom Life Gardener (written by some very knowledgeable and hardcore people), “[b]ecause nobody’s been to every corner of land to catalog what’s growing, countless undiscovered types [of cultivated seed varieties] are out there. But what we do know is that there are at least a hundred thousand varieties” (p. 15). At least 100,000 varieties of edible plants cultivated by one species on one tiny planet in the middle of a vast universe. And that’s just the ones that are still around; there’s no telling how many strains, varieties, and occasionally even species that people used to grow but stopped growing for various reasons. And who knows what new breeds people will develop?
Somehow, in this huge and unimaginable thing called reality, there is all this detail. I am focusing on things relating to our species because there is so much stuff just pertaining to one species on our planet. Expand that to every other species here, or to the nonliving stuff here, and hoo boy.
It’s as if the universe itself is a fractal: infinitely big, yet with infinitely small and intricate details. Is the one really more important than the other? Could the one exist without the other?