As in other momentous occasions in history, decades from now we will look back on the present extraordinary events with a different perspective that only the passage of time allows. The present perfect storm – virus, protests, trade war and the associated economic hardship – is so overwhelming it is difficult to extract ourselves from the day to day troubles that occupy our thoughts and actions.

However, a recent news story that came and went quickly may help provide a rather unique perspective on our unsettled times. A discovery published in The Astrophysical Journal describes an unimaginably enormous explosion in space coming from a black hole in a cluster of galaxies about 390 million light years from us.

At first, scientists doubted that a strange-looking cavity in space could possibly be a black hole because of its enormous size.

X-ray observations detected a huge explosion. Photo: NASA/CXC/NRL/S. Giacintucci, et al.

But advances in X-ray telescopes in the US and Europe coupled with low-frequency ones in Australia and India seem to have confirmed the black hole as the cause of the cavity. To put it into perspective, if the explosion had occurred in our celestial neighbourhood, it would not only have obliterated our planet and solar system, but the whole Milky Way galaxy several times over.

Because of the extreme scale of size and energy involved here, we mere humans cannot possibly conceptualise the event. And the fact that, by definition, the information about the discovery received by our telescopes recorded something that took place before the dinosaurs even evolved only compounds the ineffability of the event.

This probably explains the discovery’s rather quick entrance and exit from the news cycle, along with the rapid return to earthly matters, like the price and availability of face masks.

Remaining in the cosmic sphere but within the human realm, it is only within the last half-century that we have attained a new perspective about our place in the universe as well as how minuscule the concerns that occupy our minds and behaviour really are.

The first hint of this came during the Apollo 8 moon mission when a camera was pointed back at Earth by astronaut Bill Anders creating the first Earthrise photo with the lunar surface in the foreground.

Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders, this iconic picture shows Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. Photo: NASA.

The photo still brings pause for thought by most who view it, but at the time, in 1968, it understandably created quite a stir. Last year, Anders claimed, “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

Others have said the photo helped trigger the environmental movement. Whatever the case, it got people thinking beyond the here and now.

Over two decades later, the visual effect of showing the Earth from a distance was further magnified and miniaturised at the same time. Mission managers of NASA’s Voyager 1 space craft turned its cameras towards Earth when it was in the vicinity of Neptune, 6 billion kilometers away.

The resulting photo was made famous by astronomer, Carl Sagan. In his book, Pale Blue Dot, he refers to the photo, which accurately described the image of the Earth in its title. By pictorially miniaturising the Earth, the photo magnified our perspective of our diminished place in the universe.

Returning to our troubles at home, in the end, the recent story about the enormous black hole gives us pause for reflection. This type of reflection has only become possible in the present era with spacecraft taking distant photos of Earth, or when astrophysicists explain findings from advanced telescopes.

These advances inform us that there’s a whole big universe out there that’s been around for eons spawning spectacular events that make our own troubles laughably puny. Anyway, something to ponder as we queue for masks.

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.