A World in a Grain of Sand
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
-- William Blake
Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story called “Nightfall” about a planet where the suns almost never set because there are six of them. Once every 2,049 years the sunlight is blocked by an eclipse, and the stars come out, throwing the civilization into a panic. The story was inspired by a quotation from the opening paragraph of Emerson’s Nature that suggests an altogether different sort of response. "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” Emerson wrote, “how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!"
The universe is full of miracles that are rarely recognized as such because the universe is, well, full of them. The stars shine not once in a thousand years but every night, and there is not one star in the sky but many – so many that we cannot count or even comprehend how many. Several hundred billion in our galaxy alone, which until recently was believed to be the only galaxy there was. And then it was discovered that some of the stars in the sky were actually galaxies themselves, upwards of 100 billion of them – more stars altogether than all the grains of sand in all the beaches in the world, as Carl Sagan used to say.
The profligacy of nature is an old story. But suppose we reversed it? Suppose there was only one star in the sky – no, not even that. Suppose there were no stars, no sun, no moon, no planets, only a single grain of sand that had washed up long ago on the beach of some vanished world in a universe that was now reduced to this single granule? What then? If this was all we knew of existence, what might we conclude? Whatever else we might say, it would be no less a miracle.