HomeScienceOuter SpaceHow big is the cosmos really?

How big is the cosmos really?

This is an edition of The Wonder Reader, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a series of stories to pique your curiosity and fill you with joy. Register here to get it every Saturday morning.

There are billions of planets in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Those numbers are impossible to imagine, but NASA’s newest space telescope can help us view the depths of the universe in unprecedented detail. Yet there is one great mystery that humans may never be able to solve: just how vast is the cosmos and what does it contain?

If humans found evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a scientific miracle, but also an emotional and spiritual one, noted physicist Alan Lightman in a essay earlier this fall. Our questions would multiply: “Where do we living beings come from? Is there some kind of cosmic community?”

Lightman explains why life in the universe is likely real, For real special. “We living beings are a very special arrangement of atoms and molecules,” he writes. But these questions aren’t just about other planets and galaxies; they are also about us, here on Earth, and why we may want to believe that our lives and stories are unique. What follows is a reading list about why things are the way they are – from life on Earth to eerie coincidences at the coffee shop – and how we deal with the unknowable.

The cosmic dice

Erik Carter / The Atlantic Ocean; Getty

Life is a coincidence of space and time

By Alan Lightman

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Even if life existed on every planet, the living matter in the universe would be just a few grains of sand in the Gobi Desert.

A person holds a globe against a backdrop of meteor-struck Earths, crumbling and colliding rockets.
Zoe van Dijk

Why Earth’s history seems so miraculous

By Peter Brannen

The strange, cosmic reason why our evolutionary path looks increasingly happier the longer we survive

Illustration of a brain connecting various data, including lottery numbers and dates of birth.
Hein Nouwens / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic Ocean

Coincidence and the meaning of life

By Julie Beck

The surprising opportunities of our lives may seem like they hint at hidden truths, but they actually reveal the human mind at work.

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I leave you with an interesting tidbit from Julie Beck’s article on coincidences: Beck quotes research showing that certain personality traits are associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing coincidences. For example, people who describe themselves as religious and those seeking meaning are particularly prone to find coincidences in their daily lives.

(A group that maybe not see so many coincidences? UK residents have spoken up, according to a Professor Beck. “Coincidences never happen to me at all, because I never notice anything,” he said. “I never talk to anyone on the train. When I’m with a stranger, I don’t try to bond with them because I’m English.”)

— Isabel



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