The London Natural History Museum is unusually crowded, even for a Saturday afternoon. Children charge in every direction towards the skeletons of dinosaurs or volcanic rocks. Parents fret and try to keep up, or at least not lose their children in the throngs of people. There are tourists with confused expressions, who stop in the middle of a corridor without warning. Teenagers are taking selfies with the statue of Charles Darwin and middle aged men are looking at butterflies with furrowed brows. This bustle of human activity is the most important thing in the universe right now.
I step out of the crowd and into the quiet space of the Natural History Museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System’. The inside of the exhibition is the opposite of the rest of the museum. It is a quiet place in which to regard large static pictures of the planets in our solar system, while contemplating humanity’s place in the universe. Soothing ambient music from Brian Eno plays throughout, an original commission for this exhibition.
The exhibition consists of thousands of photos of the solar system - taken by NASA, ESA, probes and rovers - assembled into large images of Earth’s neighbours by the artist Michael Benson. It begins with Earth and the moon, before moving out to Mars, Mercury and Venus, and then travels all the way to the most distant planets. Each picture appears to show a world that is stranger and more alien than the one before it.
As I walked around the quiet space filled with enormous images of distant worlds, I was reminded that the universe is cold, dangerous and indifferent to everything we care about. Mercury’s atmosphere is pushed away from the surface by solar light and trails behind the planet like a comet’s tale. Venus’s atmosphere is toxic, heavy and superheated; completely inhospitable to human life. Mars is a dry desert. The rest of the solar system is cold and airless. Confronted with the stark hostility of the universe, I forgot all about the hive of activity outside the exhibition. It all seemed so pointless and brief compared to the surface of other worlds that have remained unchanged for millions of years.
It was scary to realise how insignificant we are, but I was also able to see also that the universe has great beauty as well as dangerous environments. Saturn looks sublime with its perfect rings. The cobalt blue of Uranus looks tranquil against the perfectly black sky. The cracked icy surface of Europa (a moon of Jupiter) is beautiful as well as protecting the sea beneath, which is kept liquid by the pull of Jupiter's gravity despite the extreme cold of being so far from the sun. Even in the harshest of environments, nature still holds wonders. The grand vistas of the Martian desert are stunning to behold. The universe is beautiful as well as dangerous.
This beauty is timeless and eternal. It is entirely unaffected by anything humanity has done - aside from the odd discarded rover on Mars or probe flying out into deep space. We are so vanishingly small when compared to the rest of our solar system. There are cloud storms in Jupiter's atmosphere that are larger than our whole world. The impact of humanity cannot even be seen on pictures of Earth, a reminder that it is not the world we are trying to save but ourselves. We cannot fathom how small and insignificant we are next to the vastness of the universe.
The universe is very beautiful, but utterly indifferent to everything we care about. The ice on Europa will still be there after everything we have ever cared about has turned to dust. A billion years after we are all dead, Saturn’s rings will still be spinning, unaffected by our lives and everything we hold dear. I was left feeling very small and pointless.
I emerged from Otherworlds into the hall of mammals at the Natural History Museum. The shouts of the rest of humanity disturbed my Brian Eno-created calm, but the scene was a welcome reminder of the fact that we do matter. Life maybe fragile, small and brief when compared to the planets in the sky, but the vibrancy and diversity of life on Earth is stunning to behold and every bit as beautiful as the surface of dead worlds. Humanity and the petty things we care about are more unusual than anything that exists on any other world we know about, and might perhaps be unique in the entire universe. I felt that I had travelled to the edge of the solar system to be reminded of truth about the people all around me: we maybe be small but we are still important.
Otherworlds: Visions of Our Solar System is on at the London Natural History Museum until the 15th of May 2016.