Why are we here? Where do we come from? What are we to do with the time that we've been given?
The answers to these questions and others like them define who we are as human beings. We love to ask questions. We love to think, wonder, and explore. It would be impossible to answer these questions without understanding one critical concept. We can’t imagine life without it. And, it's woven into the fabric of life, everything that we do, and everything that we are.
Joseph Campbell said,
In this article, I'd like to share how:
A couple thousand years ago, we observed time using a model of the universe where God put Earth in the middle of the universe. The sketch above illustrates the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe model where Earth was majestically positioned in the middle with ten concentric, transparent spheres circling it. We believed the Earth didn't revolve around anything, but everything revolved around it, including all of the fixed stars rotating on orbiting spheres above us. It was a good intuitive explanation of how the universe worked. But it was all wrong.
Today, we know better. Here’s where we live.
This is what we think our galaxy, the Milky Way, looks like and our position in it. There are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Each with about 100 billion stars. Our galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars, enough gas and dust to make billions more stars, and at least ten times as much dark matter as all the stars and gas put together. And it’s all held together by gravity. And at the center of the Milky Way is a supermassive black hole.
Like more than two-thirds of the known galaxies, the Milky Way has a spiral shape. Other galaxies have elliptical shapes, and a few have unusual shapes like toothpicks or rings. Here are a few galaxies that I like.
The image above is the M81 Galaxy, a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright.
This image is of the Pinwheel Galaxy. It is located in the constellation of Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper). It is about 70 percent larger than our own Milky Way Galaxy, with a diameter of about 170,000 light years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light years from Earth. This means that the light we're seeing in this image left the Pinwheel Galaxy about 21 million years ago - many millions of years before humans ever walked the Earth.
This is called the Sunflower Galaxy. The spiral arms resemble the pattern at the center of a sunflower. The winding arms shine bright because of the presence of recently formed, blue–white giant stars and clusters.
This is Messier 96, a spiral galaxy just over 35 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). It is of about the same mass and size as the Milky Way. The galaxy resembles a giant maelstrom of glowing gas, rippled with dark dust that swirls inwards towards the nucleus. Messier 96 is a very asymmetric galaxy; its dust and gas are unevenly spread throughout its weak spiral arms, and its core is not exactly at the galactic center.
Here's an image of a small region in the darkest part of the sky called the Extreme Deep Field. It covers an area equivalent in size to a tennis ball at a distance of 100 meters. Almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies. That's astounding.
To experience time, our time, we ought to understand cosmic time, which is so big that it’s almost unimaginable, and difficult to grasp in its totality.
How big is time? How big is God? Well, they are about as big as the universe. And that's really big.
If my living room were a measurement of the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), then the entire time that humans have been alive (6 million years) would measure only 3 millimeters. That's equivalent to a small crack in between the floorboards. That's a very small amount of time we humans have been around. That's how big time is.
This is an image of the oldest object any human has ever seen. It's called GRB090423. It's an image of a faint spot of light seen many years ago in the constellation of Leo. The small red dot in the middle there is what we saw from a star's explosion. One of the very first stars in the universe died. The star was about 50 times bigger than our sun. When it exploded, and went super nova, the light lasted about 10 seconds. The super nova explosion was about 10 million times brighter than that of the sun. The faint red-dot light took a lot of time to get to us. That light from the dot has been traveling for 13 billion years. 13 billion years ago (when the universe was young) that star exploded. It took that long for that light to get here. When you look out to the stars, you are essentially looking back in time.
It’s difficult to for us to relate to the vast time scale of the cosmos. For example, our solar system is traveling at incredible speed around our Milky Way galaxy. Our sun is moving at about 13 miles a second, traveling around our galaxy. That's really fast. And yet, it’ll take 250 million years for our sun to go around it. In the entire history of the human race, we’ve traveled only 1/10th of 1% of the orbit around. Time is so vast when thinking about the cosmos.
About 3,000 years ago, a man of great wisdom, wealth, and power wrote a lot about time. His name was King Solomon. And he asks us a very important question about time. He wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
And then in verse 9, he asks, "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?" Which means, "What is the purpose of all of this time that we have?"
Great question. This type of question defines who we are. In defining who we are, we can look to the stars.
Arrow of Time
Life in the cosmos is just like our lives. It is irreversibly changing as time goes on. The universe is not static and unchanging. Stars are born, and stars die. We are born, we live, and we die. And there will be a new season. Tomorrow will be different than today. But why?
Why are there times for different things and different seasons?
There's something called the arrow of time. Arrow of time says the future will be different from the past. And we know that intuitively. We see the effects of passing time all around us. For example, look at your watch or the clock on the wall. Take a look at the following picture.
Old, Abandoned Gold Mine
This is a picture of an abandoned gold mine in Colorado. There are hundreds of structures just like this one where I live. And they are all deteriorating, falling down, and decaying. This once was wonderfully new, painted vibrant red, with men working all around it. Producing lots of gold. But now, after about 100 years, it's essentially dead.
Why is that? Why does stuff around us, including our own bodies, move, over time, from new to old. And what are we, therefore, to do with the time that we have, before we turn into old, abandoned gold mines ourselves?
2nd Law of Thermodynamics
Back in 1800’s, engineers were trying to figure out how to build and efficiently, safely operate steam engines. They asked questions and wondered about how much water should be in the steam engine? How hot should the water boil? How much power can we get out of the steam? Etc. Out of these questions and calculations came a science of thermodynamics and laws. The 2nd law of thermodynamics states that everything in our universe tends to move from order to disorder, from new to old. And this is called entropy.
Let's take a quick look at what this is. This is a pile of sand. This pile has high entropy. Entropy measures how many ways I can rearrange the components of this pile of sand. It’s still a pile of sand, but it has an infinite number of ways it can be arranged. Now let's create some order in the universe.
When you have order, like a sand castle, you have low entropy. There are very few ways to rearrange the sand particles of this castle that wouldn't disturb it greatly. It’s easy to disorder this sand castle. There are very few ways to rearrange it and still maintain its order. It has low entropy. Over time, this sand castle will deteriorate. It gains entropy. It will naturally gain disorder. Wind naturally blows sand away. Water naturally washes the castle away. There’s no reason, according to physics, why the wind can’t take the sand particles and rearrange them into a castle. It’s just infinitely unlikely. Why? Because it’s more likely that the low entropy castle will turn into a high entropy condition.
Low entropy always turns into high entropy. Entropy (disorder) always increases. And this natural process explains what time is. For me, that's the beauty of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Entropy explains why time goes in only one direction. The 2nd law explains why there’s a difference between the past and the future. In the past, we have low entropy. We have order. In the past, the universe was more ordered. But in the future, we will gain entropy and more disorder. And we have these changes in the universe only through the passage of time. So, the 2nd law of thermodynamics amazingly explains the arrow of time.
We’re forced to move forward, traveling into the future. The arrow of time has a rule -- that as each moment passes, there is change, and those changes can never be rewound back. The change is permanent. We are born, we live, and we die. Just like our bodies, the stars and galaxies in the universe, although they seem to be constant and never changing, they too live and die and follow an arrow of time.
And understanding the age of time, and the arrow of time, helps us understand the time in which we live.
It took nearly 14 billion years for a window of opportunity to open up in which the conditions in the universe where just right for life. Humans have walked the Earth for only a brief moment in time. It’s remarkable how far we’ve come – from believing the world was flat and the sun and stars revolved around us... to knowing the size of the universe, our place within it, and how our time is here is incredibly precious. We are the cosmos made conscious. God has given us life and our ability to understand ourselves.
So, what does God say we do with the time that we have been given? Let's turn back to
Ecclesiastes. We read to Ecclesiastes 12:13 that we are to respect God and keep his commandments. What does that mean? What commandments?
Remember that most of the bible was not written to you. So, the commandments in the Old Testament must be understood in the light of other texts, such as Mark. In Mark 12:28-32 we are told to love God and love your neighbor. It reads:
The Buddha said:
So, how do you love God and your neighbor? The answer is in your head. The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart and in the mind.
The Answer is In Your Head
In Romans 12, we read in the first two verses that we begin to understand our world starting with our minds. It reads:
I shouldn't be conformed to this world, but instead, I should be transformed by the renewing of my minds. Only when I change my mind (renew it), I can express the love of God in the renewed mind in manifestation.
So, our time is all about love.
I like what 1 John 4 says. In verse 7 through 12, we read:
It’s all about love.
In this article, we learned how:
This is our time. I encourage you to enjoy the time we have, enjoy the entire universe that we’ve been given, and fully experience God’s interwoven connection of the cosmos, Spirit, and one another.
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