I've been an armchair astronomer since my late teens or early twenties; that's what comes of reading and watching tons of science fiction. I've never owned a telescope or even a decent pair of binoculars; I barely know the major constellations (although I'm oddly fond of Orion, maybe because its "belt" is so easy to spot in my part of the world). Aside from one Science and Engineering Club field trip in college, I've never driven out to the country (away from all the light pollution in town) to get a decent look at the sky. I get my astronomy "fix" from photos like the ones taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which was launched into space 21 years ago this month. Here's one of my all-time favorite HST shots, of the "Tadpole" galaxy (officially known as "UGC 10214" or "Arp 188"):
The Tadpole probably got its long "tail" as a result of a collision with another, smaller galaxy. What beauty can come of intergalactic violence! What really gets me about this picture, though, is the huge number of more distant galaxies that it shows...galaxies that could be just as big and complex and diverse as our own (the Milky Way). When I see a picture like this, I imagine myself being about as important in the grand scheme of things as a microbe living on a chip of rock in a pile of rubble in a valley in some barren, windswept mountain range. Even if I was doing all the things that a microbe is supposed to do—eating, growing, excreting, making lots of little baby microbes, etc.—you'd never know it from the top of the mountain range. Anyone who can look at a photo like the one above, grasp the vastness and complexity that it represents (of just one tiny bit of our universe, mind you), and still believe that s/he was deliberately, "intelligently" designed to occupy one particular spot on an insignificant planet in "the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy" has a far more vivid imagination than I do.
H/T to Phil "Bad Astronomer" Plait...even though he initially got the HST's launch date wrong. (He's fixed it now.) I actually started writing this post without realizing that this is Hubble's birthday month, before Phil said anything about it on his blog. When I read his post, I realized that I'd accidentally managed to time my thoughts really well!