Size Counts

A lot of deeply religious people, content to live in a compact, Human-centered Universe, are able to do so largely in proportion to their inability to do math. Of course they can add and subtract, maybe even still do some algebra, but they are woefully lacking in the tools necessary to understand the numbers that describe the cosmos. As a result, they don’t really understand how big the universe is and what that implies for the ancient god myths. It is a sad manifestation of what John Allen Paulos wrote about in his highly enlightening book, INNUMERACY.

Innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy and, although many people joke about their own inability to do math, it actually has real, adverse effects on the ability to grasp the Universe in a rational manner. It has less to do with ability to do long division than it has to do with the ability to understand scale and logical relationships. A more practical effect is that those who are unable to judge, or even think about numerical relationships may find themselves more easily fooled by misinformation or deceived by scammers. Like televangelists. If one has no mental tools for the validation of claims, then one is likely to believe in some really stupid shit. A lot of the ancient beliefs seem to imply a small, intimate Universe, one which extended only from some very toasty underground real estate to someplace above the clouds but below the canopy of stars. Some even thought the stars could be reached with a tall enough tower. Some thought that it was possible to fly too close to the sun. Some thought it was turtles all the way down. But everyone thought it was a Universe centered around us and more or less set up just for us.

I think that dispelling that myth requires only a gentle lesson about the size of the universe, requiring nothing more than a calculator and a sense of awe.

Millions and Billions.

First, a simple lesson in scale. A billion is the smallest increment on the Cosmic Yardstick. And a billion, to us, is really a lot! To illustrate, first lets look at a Million of something. Something easy to understand. Like seconds.

1,000,000 (one Million) seconds = 11 days, 13 hours, 46 min, and 40 sec. Lets call it 11.5 days for convenience.

1,000,000,000 (one Billion) seconds = 11, 500 days or 31.5 years!! One billion seconds ago, it was 1976.

Awesome, eh? Anyway, on to …

The Size of the Universe!

Let's look at our nearest star, the Sun, as a big yellow beach ball 3 feet in diameter. We will start all our measurements from there.

If the Sun were a beach ball sitting on the goal line at Sun Devil Stadium, the Earth would be a tiny round piece of pea gravel 93 yards away. (93M mi.)

Mars would be a little orange bead almost 400 feet away in the seats behind the goal post. (142M mi.)

Jupiter would be a baseball just over 1/4 mile away. (484M mi.)

Saturn would be tennis ball about 1/2 mile away. (888M miles)

Pluto, smaller than our moon, would be a pinhead almost 2 ½ miles away (3.67B mi.)
BTW – to drive out to Pluto at 60 mph, would take you 6975 years.

After that, things start getting bigger in a hurry.

The NEAREST star – Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years distant - would be a slightly smaller beach ball, in Sydney, Australia 12440 miles away. Driving time - 47.6 Million years. If 1 year were 1 second long, it would still take you a year and a half to drive there.

The nearest spiral Galaxy, the lovely Andromeda, is a mere 2 Million light years away. Like our galaxy, the Milky Way, Andromeda is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter and contains over 200 Billion stars. If the Milky Way were a hula hoop, Andromeda would be another hoop 80 feet away. If you were driving at 1 million miles an hour, it would take you 6 million years to drive across our galaxy and 120 million years to get to the outskirts of Andromeda.

The Milky Way is one of about 20 galaxies in our local cluster which, in turn is part of the local super cluster which contains thousands of galaxies. The farthest observed galaxy would be another hula hoop over 90 miles away. Driving at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second, or 11 million times the speed limit, it would take you about 12 or 13 billion years.

From where we sit ...

From where we sit, we can see well over 100 BILLION galaxies beyond our own. On average, they each have over 100 BILLION stars and other stuff. And that is just the stuff we can see from here. And I don’t see any reason to think that everything suddenly stops just past that galaxy.

So, as you can see, the Universe is, in Scientific terms, freakin’ huuuge!!
I think that a lot of the religious have an institutionally mandated and studiously maintained level of ignorance regarding not just the size of the Universe, but also our relative importance in it. I personally do not find myself diminished by it – I find it the most fascinating thing imaginable.

 If the sun were a grain of sand, the stars in our galaxy would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If our galaxy were a grain of sand, the galaxies would fill several olympic-sized swimming pools.

Perspective

I think that Isaac Asimov put things in perspective in the title of his classic Sci-Fi novel, “The Stars Like Dust”. Even looking around in our local neighborhood, the stars are, in some places, so numerous they look like haze.

Bertrand Russell, in his book, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, says (and I am paraphrasing) that our inflated sense of self importance and placement in the Universe can best be cured with a little astronomy.

But I think P. W. Atkins, in a remarkable little book called, ironically, Creation Revisited, opened up a whole new perspective when he called the Universe “a local outcropping of matter”.

That is the kind of scale and perspective which show the ancient god-myths for what they truly are – local outcroppings of lunacy.