Tackling the enormity of the Universe


NGC 6357
NGC 6357 – “War and Peace Nebula”

Now and then we take a peek at the stars and wonder about life and the scale of the Universe. Unfortunately, those twinkly stars are quite featureless from this distance. The beautiful sky of a summer night has been branded with romanticism. But, as I feel it, people don’t stop to really take a look at the sky and imagine what’s beyond that glimpse of the stars. I know if you’re reading these lines you’re going to say: “That’s not true, I admire the vastness of the Universe!”. I understand. Take a pause and look at different people around you. Not all do, for most of the folks out there the night sky is but a part of the daily(should I say nightly? hehe…) routine that fits nicely in the landscape but goes by unnoticed. Just like individual leaves of a tree, from a forest, on a distant hill.

That’s not to say people are ignorant. There are documentaries and numerous articles on the theme of space, meant to raise awareness about the vastness of the cosmos. I remember watching some episodes of “Through the wormhole”. Also, there’s this nice application on the internet, “The scale of the Universe”. You may also find lots of videos on youtube from enthusiasts who vlog regularly.

These efforts to measure the distances between astral objects deal with the “objective” part of the scales. Unfortunately, these scales are but scientific numbers that matter when engineering spacecraft and doing other… spacely stuff :). It is intriguing and the mind is challenged to understand the nature of these distances, but numbers must be transformed in stories. Analogies and allegories must be created in order for us to better understand the massive scale.

A famous image from 1990, taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, portrays the Earth as it “sits” in the blackness of space.

Seen from 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion mi...
” There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (Carl Sagan)

Earth is a tiny pixel around the center of the image, to the left. The picture was taken as the spacecraft was reaching the edge of our Solar System, around 6 billion km away. It’s hard to imagine such a distance, but… let’s think of it this way: light has to travel for approximately 5 hours to cover this distance. Our planet has an equatorial circumference of about 40.000 km. Light would cover that distance in about a tenth of a second( ~100 ms). Our home is little! We dream about luxurious exoplanets, yet, the harsh reality is that across even interstellar distances( which are quite small compared to how big the Universe is) the only luxurious planet that harbors life is ours.

As we “zoom out” using our imagination from the solar system, we begin to see other star systems, eventually galaxies and nebulae. A nebula is a spectacular arrangement of stellar dust and ionized gases. They range from bright, beautifully colored clouds to dark, inspiring shapes.

Here’s an example of a bright and dark nebula:

Orion Nebula
Pillars and Jets Nebula
Pillars and Jets, NASA Hubble Telescope

At this point our minds just fail when trying to compare the extreme sizes of such galactic proportions to our home. But there’s another facet to the story. Perhaps, our only “tool” from now on is our emotions which help us go deeper in the understanding of how beautiful and vast is the Universe.

I’ve recently seen a film, Tree of Life, which is mostly a spiritual experience in my opinion than a film with a final conclusion. But it beautifully puts in perspective the scope of our life with the enormity of the evolving Universe.

This is one of the scenes that inspired me to write this article, and it sent shivers through my spine( of course, I recommend watching the whole film):

And when I thought seeing such scenes will give me almost a somber feeling, I saw this image:

Humor of galactic proportions

Now watch this little guy:

(video belongs to pokomarichard)

The forces involved in the building of a galaxy, explosion of a star, creation of the sun, evolution of the Earth through hundreds of millions of years of bombardment with outside matter, all of that… for us and this lovely cockatiel that fades away in an instant.

Lacrimosa.

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