When looking up at Jupiter recently, it occurred to me that the effect of the night sky on humanity hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. We can imagine the awe and wonder with which ancient people would have looked at the sky. They could watch and track the movements of the sun and stars and planets, but they didn’t know the size or scope of the universe. They didn’t know that stars were huge balls of burning hydrogen, or that the “wandering stars” were planets just like the Earth, or that the stars they could see were just a tiny fraction of those that really existed. They were awed by the unknowable nature of the heavens, its unreachable otherness, and it made them contemplate their mortality and place in the world. More than anything else in nature, it made them contemplate God.
Then came Isaac Newton. In a phenomenal leap of understanding, Newton realized that the parabolic motion of a thrown rock on Earth is the same motion as that of a moon or planet in orbit, following the same basic equations. In other words, the heavens were not a different realm, made of different materials (quintessence!) and following different rules. The heavens were the same as the Earth. They were an extension of the same material world, made of the same stuff and following the same rules. In was an astonishing and culture-changing realization that opened the door to much of the materialism and atheism that characterizes modern scientific thought. It was as if Newton had discovered that heaven–and therefore God–didn’t actually exist.
When we look at the sky now, even as children, we tend to play a game of galactic one-upsmanship. Wow, look at Jupiter, we think. It’s really big. You could fit more than a thousand Earths inside it. But that’s nothing compared to the size of the sun! You could fit more than a million Earths inside that baby. Yeah, but our sun isn’t even really that big. The biggest star found so far could fit more than a thousand copies of our sun inside it. And our solar system is puny compared to the size of our galaxy, which is so big it takes light a hundred thousand years to cross it. But our galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe! And on and on we go.
What’s the result of all this contemplation? We realize that we can barely comprehend the size of our own planet, never mind the universe, which is so vast we can’t even keep the numbers in our head. And so modern man, just as much as ancient man, is prompted to consider his own mortality and place in the world when gazing at the sky. Far from conquering the universe with our knowledge, we’ve merely discovered how much smaller we are than we ever thought, and how much more there is to reality. Even more so than ancient man, we’re awed when we see the bright speck of Jupiter, because we know what it means. And so, despite Newton, we find God in the sky after all.