Some years ago my sister-in-law asked me to write an essay she had for her Croatian homework. I said, I suck at writing essays, but if it’s an interesting topic, why the heck not. After all, I’m sometimes known for my ability to be a smartass which can come in handy. The topic of the essay was “The universe and my place within it”. Wow, now that’s something I can do. I wrote it all down, and her teacher was genuinely impressed with it, so much that she had pinned it in the school lobby as the best essay written. Supposedly the essay is still pinned there, 4 years later, but that’s speculation on her part.
However, we were caught. Our genius plan has been foiled by her teacher. She immediately knew she didn’t actually write a word of it, and had asked her a simple question; what exactly is a galaxy? The sister-in-law, then 15, replied with a blank stare. The teacher made a proposition: “Would you like a passing grade, or write your own?” She chose the barely passing grade. Anyway, looking back at the piece I wrote, it’s kinda cute and decided to share it here, translated to English. Since this is somewhat lost in the translation, the protagonist is the sister-in-law and is set from her point of view after returning home from school.
During a windy and cold, starry winter night while coming home from school I saw the Milky Way in the sky. This wasn’t the first time I had laid my eyes on it, but it was the first time I appreciated the implications of such a sight. It’s a view to the center of our galaxy, in which we are nothing but an insignificant planet in our galactic neighborhood, just one of many. I felt how I was standing on one of those tiny rocks, the gravitational pull of the entire planet pulling me down to the center of the rock that is enormous to us, but a speck of dust compared to other astronomical bodies. The seemingly infinite number of stars only in our galaxy, all with their planets moving of their own accord can leave a person breathless.
You can ask yourself a lot of questions. The first question that pops into one’s mind is “are we alone in the universe?” The answer is, of course we’re not alone in the universe! Out of all the countless planets that are woven throughout the universe, it’s impossible that the Earth is the only one blessed with the prerequisites for life. Where are the little green men, then? No one said they were anywhere close. Life, at least the way we know it could be extremely rare. It’s possible that a planet like Earth is only present in one out of a billion galaxies. Even taking into account such a grim approximation it would mean there are at least 200 to 300 alien civilizations in the visible universe that are asking themselves the very same questions I’m asking while gazing into the beautiful night sky.
The added problem of our alien brethren is the time and the vast distances involved. An alien civilization could have been at arms reach a mere 3 billion years ago, long dead by now with their sun dying a violent death which can now be seen as the remains of a long-gone alien solar system through telescopes and pretty pictures on the internet. The roles could be reversed, in 10 billion years we’ll be the lovely false color pictures. The distances and times involved are so colossal that it begs the question can technology within one system, our universe, ever be outside the bounds of said system so we could conceivably call our galactic neighbors to lunch.
You can’t rule out the possibility of a consciousness and intelligence so alien to us that even with our most intense efforts we can never hope to detect them, so different that it’s not even possible in a sense. They might not be living on a planet somewhere and asking themselves dumb questions like us. Those kind of analogies could be applied here, to Earth. You’re going somewhere, minding your own business, when you encounter a “lower” life-form, a worm or something similar. Can we help it in some way, step on it by accident or with intent? We can even simply not perceive it in any way, shape or form and go about your merry way. Can a worm discern us in a sensible kind of way, inside its own limited perception of the real world, whatever that may be? It could very likely be that we’re the worm in a scenario where a “higher” life-form is asking similar questions about us. Is this what they call a deity?
The Milky Way is abruptly replaced by concrete and shingles of my own home. Oh, I’ve arrived. The level of inspiration gathered by a simple gaze at the center of our galaxy is unbeatable, albeit it almost completely vanishes as soon as you go through the doorstep. Watching other Suns, other worlds, even if it is through your mind is now replaced by other simpler and in a way harder questions and problems. In any case, I can’t wait for my next walk through the cosmos!