Since 17 March 2009, I've had a poll on this site about the universe. The poll is now closed! Here is how it looked:
Before I give you the results, I wonder how you would respond to this? How does the universe make you feel?
I make no claim to scientific accuracy in the results that follow. It is obviously skewed by the kind of people who visit my site (not that there is anything atypical about my site, of course). And it is also skewed by a certain friend who was so awestruck and excited by the universe that he voted in the poll every time he visited my site...! (The WP-Polls plugin logs your IP address when you vote, so this kind of thing shouldn't happen too often!) But anyway (drumroll please), here are the results...
You will glean from this, first, that my site is extraordinarily popular. It has been visited by 504 different people (or different IP addresses at least) in a mere 4 years and 9 months.
But, second, you will glean that there is a clear winner, a clear loser, and a clear second-placer. Let's deal with them in reverse order.
What's on the telly? (12%, 58 votes)
Let's face it: this is a very reasonable response. Not one of these billions of stars and galaxies is going to make the slightest difference to your life. For the vast majority, you need a telescope even to see them. Astronomy is of no practical use, and if you want trivia or entertainment, just switch the TV on.
Tiny and insignificant (19%, 97 votes)
Slightly more popular is another very reasonable response. Those billions of stars were burning away long before you were born, and will still be burning long after you have been forgotten. The universe is big. Really big. You are not. It is perfectly reasonable to feel insignificant compared with the vastness of the cosmos.
Awestruck and excited (69%, 349 votes)
But this was clearly the most popular result. Why? Indifference is understandable. Existential angst is understandable. But why be awestruck and excited? Will such a reaction help you to survive? Are you more likely to get another meal, or pass on your genes, if you are endlessly gazing at the stars? Unlikely.
But few of us can fail to respond in this way. I sometimes say it's really easy to give an inspiring talk about astronomy. Just go to HubbleSite, download a few pictures, show them to people and say, "Look! It's really big!" The audience will say, "Ooh, wow!" and tell you how wonderful your talk was! Why do we have this reaction?
Such a reaction makes perfect sense if the Christian account of our existence is correct. If we have been made in order to know God our creator, and in order to be awestruck and excited by his greatness and his goodness, then it is no surprise that we are awestruck and excited by the wonderful things he has made.
Perhaps this instinctive reaction to the vastness of the universe is a small pointer towards the reason for our existence?
Something to think about next time you are out on a starry night.