No, that’s not my salary offer to pitch next year, nor is it the number of Cheetos I have consumed in my life time. 300 sextillion is the latest estimate of the number of stars in the universe, which is three times what astronomers had previously thought. As we learned from Hubble’s “Deep Field” pictures, every time we look out into the darkness, we find more light.
Or, perhaps, it’s the other way round.
The story is not new, but I thought about it again today because of another NPR story on Voyager 1, a spacecraft launched in 1977 to look at the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which is getting close to the outer edge of our solar system and will move on into interstellar space in about four years. Melissa Block talked to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium and asked him what had been the most amazing thing he had learned from Voyager and he talked about seeing the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The images were clear enough to see mountains and ice. They aren’t just big balls of gas, he said, they are worlds.
As I meandered the web before I started to write, my friend Sonya pointed me to this article by Mark Morford that talked about the sextillion stars and finished with one other thing:
Oh and BTW? 300 sextillion, says our sly scientist, also happens to be the rough sum total of all cells inhabiting all human bodies on planet earth at this particular moment. One sextillion stars, one sextillion cells. Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that an odd coincidence?
Well, no, say the wise ones. Not really. Now pipe down and get yourself awed.
I put it all together and I come up singing hymns:
O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder
consider all the worlds thy hands hath made
I see the stars I hear the rolling thunder
thy power throughout the universe displayed
then sings my soul . . .
On the continuum of wonder, we sit somewhere between the two sextillions, cellular and celestial, stealthily bombarded with opportunities for amazement from both directions, even as we, the inhabitants of this world, are consumed by our fears and distractions, along with our ever-expanding sense of ourselves. Yet, the sum of all our arrogance doesn’t come close to 300 sextillion ramekins of rage (or whatever the measurement might be); our fear stands dwarfed by the brilliance bound for us at the speed of, well, light.
Maybe that’s why every time an angel shows up in the gospels he leads with, “Do not be afraid.”
Yes, it’s dark out there and, as David Wilcox says, “there’ll always be some crazy with an army or a knife.” But all the IEDs and RPGs, all the cancers and car crashes, the Alzheimers, all the terrorists and tsunamis, all the smart bombs and stupid politicians, all the wars and rumors of wars don’t come close to outnumbering the 300 sextillion stars – the light gaining on us – and all the cells that are our built-in reminder of what has been true since Creation: nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Bill Mallonee has a song called “Look at All the Stars.” The last two verses say:
there are some who’re blind by choice
and there others who are not
and I’ve kept so many faces
but my own I’ve long forgot
father often took me here
he was like a little child
long before the lights went out
I can still see him smile
he said look at all the stars
oh my look at all the stars
yeah I brought you here to see
all the things I never see
brought you to this highest peak
so you’ll me what I’m missing
when the clouds are blown apart
I hear the moon shines like a cup
in that silver velvet blue
the heart of God it opens up
look at all the stars
you say look at all the stars
oh my look at all the stars
Pipe down and get yourself awed: say, “Oh, my, look at all the stars.”