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This bad-news planet

By David Wilson

For a variety of reasons, last spring was a slog for me and my wife. By the time July rolled around, we were more than ready to make tracks for the cottage. We can always rely on a couple of weeks there to transform us. This time around, however, the transformation felt a little tainted.

It was as if the outside world found a way to sneak through the building’s old timbers. Our cottage time coincided with a litany of bad news. In the course of two weeks, terrorists hacked to death 20 hostages in a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh; suicide bombers killed 200 people in Baghdad; police shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; police in Minneapolis shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile — the immediate aftermath captured on his girlfriend’s live-streaming smartphone; five police officers were killed and six others injured in a sniper attack in Dallas; hundreds were killed in fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan; 84 people were killed and hundreds injured in an ISIS-inspired attack during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France; more than 300 people died and 50,000 were detained in a failed coup in Turkey; and a former U.S. Marine ambushed and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge.

Add to this the spectre of Donald Trump’s looming coronation as the Republican presidential nominee in the United States, and it seemed like the world beyond our cocoon had taken leave of its senses. By the end of those two weeks, I felt like throwing the radio into the lake.

It wasn’t until we returned home that I stumbled on a story that had been mostly overlooked amid the cacophony of bad news. In the first run of a partially completed super-telescope, astronomers in South Africa discovered 1,300 new galaxies in a corner of the cosmos where previously only 70 were known. They released images that showed hundreds of galaxies in various states of development or decline, suspended in the blackness of the distant universe. The South African telescope will eventually be linked to an immensely more powerful global array of radio telescopes. This summer’s remarkable images were a tantalizing foretaste of more marvels in store once the Square Kilometre Array telescope is fully operational sometime around 2030.

The section of the universe captured in the images represents less than one one-hundredth of the visible sky; there are hundreds of billions more galaxies waiting to be discovered, each one made up of billions of solar systems and untold planets. The images underscore how infinitesimally small Earth is in the wider scheme of things; it will only get smaller with each new universe-expanding discovery.

You’d think we Earthlings would conduct ourselves in ways that reflect how puny and isolated we really are. The United Church creed speaks in abstracts when it assures us “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.” Practically speaking, this pinprick of a planet is all we have until something comes along to prove otherwise. Yet our lack of self-awareness is stunning. Instead of being humbled by our teensiness, we are dissolute and arrogant. Instead of being united in our remoteness, we are mortally divided.

Astronaut William Anders’s iconic 1968 photograph of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon is widely credited with helping to kickstart the modern environmental movement. Seen by enough of us, the spectacular images astronomers will deliver in the coming years might also have the power to change how we view our planet and each other, and perhaps restore some sanity to our troubled patch of the universe.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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