“Is no one inspired by our present picture of the Universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers, you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.” -Richard Feynman
Back in 2008, Time Magazine interviewed Neil de Grasse Tyson, and asked him, “ What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” His answer was indeed a very good, true, and astounding fact about the Universe: that all the complex atoms that make up everything we know owe their origins to ancient, exploded stars, dating back billions of years.
It’s a great fact, and it’s definitely on the short list of the most remarkable things we’ve learned about the Universe. But if I were to choose the most astounding fact about the Universe, I’d want you to consider something else.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Not just the trees, the mountains, the skies and the oceans. Not merely everything on this Earth, mind you. Not even everything in the entire Universe.
The way it all turned out, no doubt, is absolutely wondrous. Just here, in our own little corner of the Universe, we find ourselves in a forgotten, non-descript little group of galaxies no more or less special than any of the billions out there.
But when we look out at the Universe, whether we look at the internal structure of matter, probing things down to the tiniest subatomic scales…
…or out into the expansive abyss of deep space, billions of light years away, at the largest scales visible to an observer within our Universe, there is one fact that stands out as the most astounding.
The entire Universe,
on all scales,
in all places,
and at all times,
obeys the same fundamental laws of nature.
From the weakest photon of light to the largest galaxy ever assembled, from the unstable atoms of Uranium decaying in the Earth’s core to the neutral hydrogen atoms forming for the first time 46 billion light years away, the laws that everything in this Universe obey are the same.
This is the most remarkable thing of all.
Imagine an existence where nature behaves randomly and unpredictably, where gravity turns on-and-off on a whimsy, where the Sun could simply stop burning its fuel for no apparent reason, where the atoms that form you could spontaneously cease to hold together.
A Universe like this would truly be frightening, because it could never be understood. The things you learn here and now might not be true later, or even five feet away.
But the Universe isn’t like this at all.
The Universe is a place where the matter and energy in it can change, the spacetime itself that we all occupy can change, but the fundamental laws — that everything is subject to — are constant.
Because what that means is that we can observe the Universe, experiment with the Universe, assemble and disassemble the things we find in it, and learn.
Only if the fundamental laws of the Universe are the same everywhere and at all times can we learn what they are today, and use that knowledge to figure out what the Universe — and everything in it — was doing in the past, and what it will be doing in the future.
In other words, it is this one fact, this most astounding fact, that allows us to do science, and to learn something meaningful, at all.
In short, the most astounding fact about the Universe is that it can be understood at all.
But Neil’s answer was pretty good, too.