We are small. Very, very small. The universe is large. Very, very large. Most people have no idea how insignificant we, Earth, and even the Sun are in relation to the universe. Even smart scientific people.
Once I gave a talk to a group of medical students at the Oregon Health & Science University. Instead of telling a joke to warm up the audience, I asked them, “Does anyone have an idea how many stars there are in our Milky Way galaxy?” No one knows the answer for sure, but I figured that I’d get some reasonable guesses. Yet I didn’t. I was surprised. (Estimates range from 100 billion to 400 billion stars).
Most of us want to have a sense of where we stand in relation to the cosmos. Often you hear someone say, “I felt so connected to everything at that moment.” But shouldn’t we have at least a vague sense of what that “everything” consists of, if such a statement is to possess any validity?
Usually God, the purported creator of the cosmos, is considered to be someone you can have a relationship with. You can relate to him, her, or it on some sort of personal level. This presupposes that God exists on a scale accessible to humans. The creator’s power, wisdom, intelligence, consciousness, love—whatever anthropomorphic qualities we might assign to the ultimate Mystery—are not so distant from our own as to make them impossible to perceive or comprehend.
Well, whenever I start to think this way, I like to ponder the scale of the physical universe. For whatever attributes the creation possesses, the creator seemingly should possess in more abundance. Aren’t a mother and father greater than their baby?
A Question of Scale is a web site based on “The Powers of Ten:” a book and movie that take us on a grand journey up and down from the scale of humans, outward to the furthest reaches of the universe and inward to the equally unfathomable quantum world. I urge you to take Bruce Bryson’s cyber-journey. I did just now and it brought tears to my eyes (but then, I get all choked up over scientific stuff like this).
We have no idea of where we stand in relation to even the material universe, not to mention any metaphysical realities that may exist. None whatsoever. Bryson’s web site attempts to give us a glimpse of the immensity of the cosmos and how small we are in relation to it, but I hesitate to call this an “idea.” Our minds are too limited to hold such an understanding, even if each of us had the mind of an Einstein.
For more mind-boggling, read To See the Universe in a Grain of Taranaki Sand by Glen Mackie. Mackie wonders whether Carl Sagan’s words could be literally true: “The total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
Since he is a Lecturer in the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing in Melbourne, Australia, Mackie is able to come up with an answer to this question. In short, yes, the stars probably do outnumber the grains of sand. I’m feeling even smaller…
I’m finding that embracing insignificance can be exhilarating. I rushed back to Google for more web pages and found Steven Dutch’s Scale of the Solar System and Universe. This is a more straightforward treatment of the subject, but it has some nice sand-related facts. I learned that if the Earth were the size of a grain of sand, then our Milky Way galaxy would be 5,000,000 miles across.
Five million miles vs. a grain of sand. That’s the relation between our galaxy and our planet. And me? A sub-atomic particle on the grain—maybe not even that. More: if the Sun were the size of a grain of sand, then the nearest neighbor galaxy to us, Andromeda, would be 1,500,000 miles away. The nearest.
There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe vastly further away from us than Andromeda. What we see of the cosmos when we look up at the night sky is essentially nothing, just a few thousand stars that lie near us in our corner of a single galaxy.
Good God. I have no idea, none at all.
And that, for sure, is the wisest thought I’m going to have today.