Update: May 2011 – Hey, if you like my writing, you should check out my new website: Sustainable Diversity with fresh new and more in depth material!
The picture directly below is of a galaxy that I was the first person on this planet to lay eyes on. I’ve named it Howard and if you’re looking at it right now then you may be the second, fourth, three-hundredth, three-thousandth… you get the idea.
Is that really true? Am I the first person to have ever seen this galaxy for real? The answer is quite possibly yes! The reason that is possible is because I joined a website that helps identify galaxies called Galaxy Zoo. In order to understand more about galaxies a project called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey scours the depths of the Universe in search of a mere million galaxies. The initial purpose of this is so astronomers can understand how galaxies are formed. Since the images are taken automatically they don’t touch human eyes, however in order to classify the galaxies Galaxy Zoo is asking you (and me) to look at them for them, and classify them. It’s almost brainless work but in order to help scientists understand our Universe better it is also important work.
Howard is part of the Universe. And the Universe happens to be one of the three things I don’t understand. If you’re interested in learning about the other two things I don’t understand, check out my entries on people and life. The Universe is the ultimate ruler, the God of man, the God of life. It is the Universe’s rules in which we are solidly bound to. It is such a tyrant that if you even attempt to break one law, there will probably be serious repercussions. The Universe rules with an iron fist, ready to crush anything that attempts (but always fails) to create its own governing laws. Life is bound to the rules of the Universe and yes, even humans are bound to the rules of the Universe. The Universe is sincerely a perplexing thing. However, like lawyers, humans are good at manipulating those laws to their favor.
Indeed the Universe is so complex that scientists are yet to even really understand it. People are thrown for a loop after loop when trying to study the Universe. First they realize that the Earth is not the center of it, which was hard to accept, then we find we’ve been living oblivious to the law of gravity all this time, then we find that gravity isn’t instantaneous and then we even discover light isn’t instantaneous. In fact we learn that when we look in to the sky at night, when we gaze our eyes deep into the sky, yes even if we could focus our eyes on Howard, we are looking at a past that does not exist anymore. Howard, the way we see him in this picture, is significantly changed now in his deep corner of the Universe. And it’s even possible he could be vanished entirely at this very moment (however it’s still improbable).
The Universe teaches us one of the most important lessons of people, life, and the Universe. This Universe is about perspective. I bolded perspective because this is the way I try and view everything, through other perspectives. It’s interesting when you take this age-old Universal law and apply it to your everyday life how magnified and minimized things can become, in fact how distorted everything becomes.
Don’t believe it? Let’s try it right now. Let’s begin to look at the solar system in perspective of the Universe:
As we can plainly see here, when we are talking about things on the scale of the sun the Earth is hardly a pixel, and you… who are you? If you’re interested in the distance between these planets and the sun from each other there is a to-scale website that shows you. And indeed the Sun itself, the powerhouse of life on this planet, the true life-giving God, is eclipsed and almost forgotten in the amalgam that is our own, Milky Way galaxy:
Even with the Milky Way being so huge, the sun can even be eclipsed simply by other stars. At this scale we’re talking about, and we’re not even near the largest of the scales of the Universe, humans have become all but insignificant. Have you ever stepped on an ant without even realizing it? That’s more significant than you are to the Universe. Even if you became dictator of the planet you would still be smaller than an ant under a sneaker. Indeed if the sun were to explode and take us with it right now,the galaxy would be wholly unaffected by the incident. The destruction of life, Earth, and the sun would be nothing more significant than losing one of the mites in your eyebrows. But it doesn’t even end there. The Milky Way is part of a gang of galaxies known as the local group:
The Local Group is a group of galaxies that all hang out relatively near to the Milky Way Galaxy. The two biggest galaxies are the Milky Way and the Andromeda. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So fast that when you turn a light on in a room, it fills the room with photons almost instantaneously. However it takes 8 full minutes to get light from the Sun to the Earth. Which also means that if the Sun were to magically explode now it would take 8 eerie minutes for us to witness it on Earth. For 8 solid minutes while the sun is rupturing in the likes unknown to humanity, for 8 solid minutes while it happened we would continue in our ignorant bliss taking it for granted. We would continue our fighting, bickering, torturing, and plundering for 8 continual minutes and then everyone, indeed everyone would stop, look up, and I can only hope reflect. Chances are they’d run in panicky fear… to where I have no idea.
While light takes a mere 8 minutes to get from the sun to the Earth it takes 4.2 years for the sun to send a packet of light to the nearest star. However the Milky Way is so big that it contains anywhere between 200 to 400 billion stars and for a packet of light to be sent from one end to the other it would take over 100,000 Earth years for it to make it. Yet in that same time you’d have only made it to the center of the the Andromeda galaxy. It would take that same packet of light to travel a total of 200,000 years to simply travel from one end of the structure to the other and it contains over one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) stars. Here’s a trivia fact, if each star was $1 it would take 9 Andromeda galaxies to come close to removing the national debt of the United States (I was initially going to say not even the US National Debt was that much, but I just learned otherwise).
While it takes light only 200,000 years to cross the Andromeda Galaxy, it takes about 2.5 million years for light from the Andromeda Galaxy to reach us here on Earth. Humans as we know ourselves did not even exist on the Earth 2.5 million years ago. While this light traveled its long distance from the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million years ago a lot changed. While it flew through space at the fastest known speed in the Universe humans came in to existence without a single tool or wheel or knowledge of fire. However 10,000 years ago when agriculture was first discovered by humans this photon of light still is going breakneck speed heading directly to Earth. The Byzantine Empire, The Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, and British Empire had all risen and fallen and this photon still didn’t reach Earth. Then finally- today- you walk outside, well after World War I and II, well after the Cold War, and look up dully at the sky and light from the Andromeda Galaxy finally hits your eyes, the light that left its home before modern humans existed. And today, right now, in the Andromeda Galaxy any given star has the potential to see the light from the Milky Way Galaxy, and what they see is a Milky Way Galaxy that has not had humans on the planet Earth yet. This means that even if there were people alive currently in the Andromeda Galaxy and they sent messages out to the Milky Way at light speed, it’d take 2.5 million years for us to receive the message and chances are we aren’t going to live that long.
So what did the Andromeda Galaxy look like 2.5 million years ago? Look in to the sky and you’ll find out. What does the Andromeda Galaxy look like today? Wait 2.5 million years and you’ll find out. In other words- if the Andromeda Galaxy were to magically explode at this moment in the most massive explosion ever to be witnessed in our skies, we would not see it happen for 2.5 million years. The Andromeda Galaxy, theoretically, could’ve exploded over a million years ago and yet because the light of that hasn’t reached us yet we are still looking at the pre-exploded Andromeda Galaxy.
And that is just one galaxy from our local group. Our local group contains roughly about 20 galaxies. In the observable Universe there are probably more than one hundred billion galaxies. I know no human can really imagine the size of the Universe to contain that many galaxies with the vast distances that are virtually impossible to conceive already with just our local group. However Science still gives us a few numbers to ponder anyway: While the Big Bang appeared to have happened only a mere 13.7 billion years ago, the actual size of the Universe seems to be older than the oldest things inside of it. It seems that the Observable Universe is roughly 46.5 billion years in all directions.
Why this is scientists really couldn’t tell you, even though they have plenty of theories to propound. Such as the Universe actually being smaller than the Observable Universe or perhaps larger. There is still a lot to be studied about the super-massive place. The point is, the whole point is, is that it’s still in debate. There are a lot of perspectives to look at before we can figure out what the deal is with our tyrannical and colossal Universe. A great way to really see these perspectives is to check out the Nikon Universcale.
It’s true that while scientists understand many laws of the Universe, they certainly are confounded by some. When Albert Einstein proved his Theory of Relativity (the Universe’s laws that govern the large things, like galaxies) it has repeatedly been proven to such a certainty that to call it wrong would be sedition. If you are a scientists who throws out the Theory of Relativity, other scientists will call you not a scientist. Yet at the same time Physics (the Universe’s laws that govern small things, like atoms) lives in direct violation to the Theory of Relativity but has been proven to be equally as correct.
This has led to a race with scientists to search for a Theory of Everything (ToE) which has involved everything from invisible strings that almost musically create matter to alternate dimensions. Since scientists don’t know the answer to everything should we dismiss what they do know because it doesn’t answer all the questions? No. Simply because their findings and projections are based on empirical data. Empirical data is important because it is documented and proven unlike many things people tend to base their beliefs on. Does this mean if scientists figure out the ToE that all questions about the Universe will be solved? No way! Just because we understand the laws does not mean there is not more to the equation.
However it is the laws of the Universe that have a direct effect on life and people. Even if we found out the ToE it would not automatically solve the foggy mist surrounding the origins of life or why people are acting in such a way that people do. The questions I propose to address on the Universe are few but simple but probably improbable to find out the answers to:
Why does the Universe exist?
What is happening within the Universe?
What do the laws of the Universe have to do with people and life?
Why do people exist within the Universe considering their insignificance and limited time?
How does time, speed, light, and mass all bury what we thought were solid perspectives?
What is truly impossible and what is only perceived as impossible?
…And so on. The Universe is daunting but is always fun to learn about because things we keep finding out about it rock our world as people. When people initially found out the world was round or wasn’t the actual center of the Universe it was absolutely blasphemous to consider and Religion even went as far to oppress such an idea. Certainly we can learn a lot from the Universe… considering that is where we’re from, we might as well.