My first reading material was comic books. I read them all the time. When my parents went shopping I sat underneath the comic book racks in the store and read as many comics as I could (free of charge). Once my dad took me shopping by himself. He bought the groceries, checked out and drove home before he realized that he had left me in the store. (My dad, like his eldest son Bruce, could really get lost in his own thoughts.) Anyway, when dad got back I was still happily reading along, not realizing that I had been, for a short time, an abandoned child. No residual emotional trauma that I can detect. 🙂
From comic books I graduated to the Hardy Boys and then to science fiction of all kinds. My first science fiction book was Robert A. Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit Will Travel”. I read it shortly after the Russians launched the first Sputnik, and thereby initiated the Space Age. Over time, I read everything that Heinlein wrote, ditto for everything by the great science fiction authors Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert and Philip Dick. I also read lots of Ron Hubbard, “Doc” Smith, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon and many others. Besides just being fun to read, these books dealt with many themes, political, social and moral, both openly and indirectly.
But the crucial, underlying theme of science fiction is this: “Is there anyone out there? Or is humankind alone in the universe?” This continues to be a central question of science today (not just science fiction). Just listen to any cosmologist like Carl Sagan or Neil De Grasse Tyson, or to a first rate astronomer like Alex Filippenko to understand how important this question remains.
The question of humankind’s place in the universe has a very long history. The Greek scientist Democritus (about 500 BC, the father of atomic theory) believed in the plurality of worlds and of the presence of intelligent life on such worlds.
The great scientist and philosopher Aristotle (about 400 BC) believed just the opposite. He thought that we were the only intelligent race on the only inhabited planet in the entire universe. We are alone in the universe. Aristotle’s physical model of the cosmos was likewise earth-centric. Everything orbited in crystalline, concentric spheres around the solid, unmoving earth. The stars existed to help seamen navigate.
Aristotle was a key intellectual influence on Roman Catholic thought. He also exerted a huge influence on Protestant theology. Cosmology (the study of the whole universe) is serious stuff, and these questions were taken very, very seriously by the dominant religions throughout the Middle Ages and earlier. In 1600 AD Giordano Bruno got himself burned at the stake (naked, as it turns out– a fate reserved for the most recalcitrant heretics) for insisting, among his other “heresies”, that the universe was infinite.
Likewise, the great Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest because, again among other things, his views on astronomy were considered heresy. (Besides being a great genius, Galileo was also tactless and arrogant…which didn’t help him at all with the religious establishment of his day.)
So why this very brief review of the history of cosmology?
Because we have been in the Space Age for almost 60 years, all of my adult life. Because any religious faith that hopes to give satisfying, defensible, realistic answers about the purpose of this earth must also give satisfying answers about the purpose of all those other worlds out there.
How many worlds?
We now know that there are at least 100 billion galaxies and that each galaxy contains on average 100 billion stars. Many of not most of these stars will have planets orbiting them. If we assume 10 planets per star (roughly like our own solar system), then we are looking at the possibility of 10 x 100 billion x 100 billion planets in the universe, or 100 sextillion possible planets, a one with 23 zeros after it. (Or roughly Avogadro’s number of worlds for the chemistry students reading this blog.) That is one heck of a lot of possible extra-solar worlds (which are called “exoplanets”, by the way).
Here is a view of one small portion of deep space as seen from the Hubble space telescope. This picture alone contains over 5000 galaxies.
Actually, there are almost certainly many more worlds than a few sextillion (interesting word! :)). Every time we build a better, bigger telescope, and we look deeper and deeper into the universe, we see new galaxies that we were not able to observe before. So, based on past experience, I assume that the next time we look with a better gadget, we will see even more galaxies.
I agree with Giordano Bruno. I think the universe is infinite, but that is a discussion for another time. An infinite universe solves the “problem” of entropy…again, something for another blog.
So, now to my point. There are uncounted trillions and trillions of worlds. Through science, we know that they exist. That point is no longer in dispute. But science does not know WHY they exist. And thus far, science has been unable to put us in contact with life on those worlds.
As I have written in previous blogs, neither science (nor science fiction) can answer the “why?” question. Science (and science fiction) can only speculate or guess or offer endless, highly conflicting opinions about “why”. No wonder we see so much conflict around us on these subjects.
As in so many other things, God inspired the Prophet Joseph Smith to answer the question of other worlds long, long before science answered them. God also clearly answered, through Joseph Smith, the “why?” question, which is the question that really concerns humankind.
First, how many worlds are there? God revealed the answer to this question to Joseph in about 1831…shortly after the Church was organized. We read from the Pearl of Great Price-Moses 1:33 and 35.
“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten…. But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.”
So, there are worlds “without number” and “innumerable are they unto man”.
As far as I am concerned, one hundred sextillion is pretty much innumerable unto me. To illustrate, if all seven billion people on earth counted one star every second of their lives and we all lived for seventy years, we would still fall 10,000 times short of being able to count all of the worlds we know about. And there are almost undoubtedly many, many more worlds than that.
So, yes. There are worlds without number and they are indeed “innumerable unto man.” All the existing, known stars have literally not been counted. We haven’t assigned numbers to all of them. We only give them numbers (actually alpha-numeric designations) when we study them specifically.
It is also interesting to note that that there are “many worlds that have passed away.” Today we know about stars following the main sequence until they explode or “pass away” in novae and supernovae. We know about black holes swallowing planets (or even other black holes) and thereby passing away out of our knowledge or ability to observe them. Another “bulls eye” for Joseph Smith.
But why make all these worlds? Is there any meaning to all these trillions of planets and stars?
Yes, there is. And that meaning is intimately connected with the work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. From Doctrine and Covenants Section 76: 22-24, given to Joseph in 1832, we learn:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.”
The inhabitants of these worlds are literally sons and daughters of God, not in some vague mystical or allegorical sense, but as a physical reality.
And what God’s purpose for His children?
Once again, the answer comes from the revelations given by God to Joseph Smith. In Moses 1:39 we read again: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
God’s purpose in creating these worlds without number is to give places for his children to live while they gain physical bodies and have essential experiences that are only possible in such bodies. We must live for a while “on our own”, separated from Him, to see how we will behave when we are not in His presence. An important part of this testing is to see how we will treat other people. The purpose of our earthly experience is to progress and become more like God, to become immortal beings with glorified bodies, and to eventually progress to the point where we live the kind of life that our Heavenly Father lives, a quality of life called “eternal life”. So, we have a divine answer to the “why” question.
I cannot imagine a grander or more uplifting understanding of the physical universe and of humankind’s place in that universe than that revealed to the Prophet Joseph.
The French philosopher and mathematician Henri Bergson once stated “the universe is a machine for the making of gods.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bergson/
What Bergson offered as a philosophical speculation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims as reality. Truly, it is a faith for the Space Age.