I’m a big fan of astronomer Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy” blog. Plait opens his April 1st article (no joke) titled “At the Heart of the Milky Way Galaxy” like this:
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a ridiculously huge collection of gas, dust, and stars … something like 200 billion stars, give or take.
That’s a lot.
In our neck of the woods stars are pretty far apart, from 20 trillion to 50 trillion kilometers on average. The nearest star known to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is about 40 trillion kilometers away. But in the center of the galaxy—downtown—they’re packed a lot more closely together. A cube just big enough to fit the Sun on one side and Proxima on the other would hold 1 million stars if it were in the galactic core. A million.
Think about it like this. If the center of the Milky Way is like the bright lights of Las Vegas packed with two million people, you’re living out in the high desert alone, your nearest neighbor being a couple miles away, the only movement on the horizon being the rolling tumbleweed.
Over the centuries countless people have equated human importance with geographic location. In short, our significance is tied to our centrality. Consequently, if we’re not at the center of everything, then our significance is called into question. So if you view the human species consigned to a quiet life out in the high desert far from the bright lights and bustle of the dazzling casinos that line the strip, it’s no surprise that you might be inclined to call into question our place in the universe.
For centuries Christians fanned the flame of the “geographic centrality thesis”, particularly in the Ptolemaic cosmology that placed planet earth as the center of the cosmos. To be sure, there are countless instances where geographic centrality is indicative of significance. But Christians would be wise to eschew any attempt to tie existential human significance to geographic placement in the cosmos. These assumptions are highly dubious (see, for example, my article “Does the size of the universe support atheism or Christianity?“). Nonetheless, they have been deeply corrosive of Christian belief in the modern world.
If you still find yourself gazing out longingly at the bustling core, remember that at the center of the galaxy, millions of stars in close proximity means the ongoing threat of gravitational perturbations, supernovae, radiation, gamma-ray bursts and countless other fatal threats. In short, we wouldn’t last long in the bright lights of that big city.
Perhaps the relative isolation of the high desert is not so bad after all.