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Lost in space

Amber Sims

One windy night a tree branch came crashing down from our neighbor’s property and destroyed part of the dividing fence. The effect was rather strange and even shocking. What had been hidden was now revealed. There was nothing interesting to see, just more grass, but a semi-sacred boundary had been breached. The fence was quickly repaired by mutual consent and suburban order was restored.

We humans are a territorial species, a habit we share with many other animals. Archaeologists, looking for traces of ancient human occupation, look first for signs of stone walls, or wooden palisades or earthen mounds thrown up to keep those inside safe from those outside. It suggests that we were even less neighborly in prehistoric times than we are now. Before human beings got started on it this planet was a series of vast undifferentiated land masses. There’s no United States or Russian Federation on the geological map. They are pure inventions, lines drawn across a landscape as blank as that of Mars, and yet we treasure and defend these arbitrary frontiers. Now we have divided our planet all the way down to quarter acre lots.

So the idea of space without end and without boundaries makes us uneasy, and we have been seeing a lot of space recently. The Hubble space telescope took us out a long way, farther than ever before. The new Webb telescope knocks down another wall and allows us to see even deeper into the universe. Far from being “empty space” it seems remarkably crowded with a turbulent mass of galaxies, stars and probably planets like ours where — because in an infinite universe everything must be replicated infinitely — alien life forms are no doubt busily building fences around quarter acres lots.

What is “space” if it has no boundaries? The old science fiction movies like “Star Wars” solved this problem by dividing the universe up into warring “confederations” and “republics,” populated by good aliens and bad aliens, just like earth, so it all seems comfortingly familiar. If you meet someone from a different galaxy you attack and annihilate them, it stands to reason. What else would you do?

Real infinite space is bigger even than a Hollywood studio and presents us with a mystery so deep that it creates an instant headache. How does space end? Is there a final wall at the end of the universe with a sign saying: “Keep Out, Nothing to See Here?” And how much invisible nothing is there to see on the other side?

Once we have digested the vastness that the space telescopes have shown us, all our other activities and pretensions seem out of scale. We are humbled or ought to be. But our leaders are still bragging and posturing around our tiny planet as if they were masters of the universe.

It's impossible not to wonder why, marooned as we are on a sub-microscopic speck of dust in the middle of nowhere, we can’t just agree to get along. But that would mean giving up our boundaries, pulling down our fences and it seems that we need them. Just as cats squeeze themselves into cardboard boxes, children hide under the furniture and billionaires build nuclear bunkers, we instinctively look for closed space to protect us from the fear of open space. Who knows what’s out there? In a cold and infinite universe, a quarter acre of grass surrounded by a sturdy fence may be our last and best hiding place.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.