First, a little history.
In 1995, astronomers did something with the Hubble space telescope that, on the surface, may seem sort of odd. They pointed it at a small, utterly empty area of space. The area, in the constellation Ursa Major, is no larger than a grain of sand held at arm's length to those of us on earth. This is what it looks like.
For ten consecutive days, the Hubble gazed into the abyss.
This is what it saw.
This is the Hubble Deep Field. Just so we're clear, there are a handful of local stars in this photograph. The bright spots with cross-style lens flares, those are stars in our galaxy. There aren't many, just four or so. Everything else - every spot, speck, smear, pinpoint and mote of dust - is an entire galaxy. All told there are three thousand galaxies in this image.
Three thousand galaxies - in a speck of empty space.
But the story doesn't end there, not quite.
My god, it's full of stars...
In 2003, we did it again. This time, the Hubble had improved optics, and we chose an tiny, more remote patch of sky and looked at it over a longer period. Between September 2003 and January 2004 the Hubble stared at a miniscule patch of sky in the constellation Fornax (near Orion). It's a piece of sky that is roughly one-seventieth of the area subtended by the moon in our sky. This image, the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, is the most important photograph ever captured by humans. It is a picture of 13 billion years. This is the photo that hangs by my desk.
This is what it looks like.
Some of the tiniest ones, shifted far into the red, are images from just 400 million years after the Big Bang. Light from these distant, young galaxies ended their 13 billion light-year journey a speck, captured literally one photon at a time, on Hubble's collector as it gazed into nothingness.
This is a picture that inspires and humbles me on a very intense, personal level. It inspired me to stop thinking of science philosophically and strive to learn more. To truly comprehend. To be greater than I am. Because in the end, we're just an idea. A mere wisp of thought tucked deep inside a speck of light - perhaps collecting, one photon at a time, on the collector of another optical device, billions of years from now.
One of an infinite number of angels, dancing on the head of a distant, ancient pin.
But now I'm getting philosophical again.
So. Of course I am eternally thankful for friends, and for family. I'm eternally thankful to have a wonderful partner to dance on this tiny world with. But in the larger sense, I'm thankful for the Hubble for giving us an eye to peer into the void. I'm thankful for these two images and for . I'm thankful for the universe, which is a more amazing and mind-boggling thing than any of us can truly comprehend, and finally, I'm thankful for perspective.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.