I like to think about things that are beyond me, even beyond the scope of my imagination. One of those things is the size of the universe.
We can say the universe, at least the part we have seen to date, is just under 14 billion light years in size. That is so many miles it is inexpressible in any meaningful way, yet we hold an image of the universe in our minds and in so doing we have condensed it to fit our brain space. Please allow me to blow your mind for a moment.
Light travels at 186,282 miles per second. Thats really fast, so fast, in fact, that light speed on Earth is virtually instantaneous. The planet itself has a circumference of only about 24,900 miles, so light could lap the Earth more than seven times in a single second. Still seems pretty dang fast.
Now back off a step and look at the sun, that beautiful life-giving orb in our sky. It is roughly 93 million miles away and it takes that ultra-fast photon screaming through the void over eight minutes to reach us. Dang! But wait, like a good late-night shopping infomercial, there is more.
Lets take a step back and have a look at our galaxy, the Milky Way. Did you know our galaxy measures 105,700 light years across? That means the photons reaching us from stars on the far side of the galaxy originated 105,700 years ago. If you are into evolution, that would be about 60,000 years before Paleolithic manstarted making cave paintings.
Now check this out. The Milky Way contains at least 100 billion stars and maybe as many as 400 billion. Now theres a number to blow your mind, but again, there is more. Our galaxy is not a monster. It is, in fact, rather ordinary in terms of galactic size. Our galaxy is but one of at least 200 billion galaxies in the known universe and an English scientist in 2016 postulated there might well be at least 2 trillion galaxies.
Our nearest neighbor is practically across the street from us relative to those unimaginable terms. Andromeda is a mere 2.5 million light years away. That means the light we see from Andromeda tonight originated in that galaxy 2.5 million years ago, and it has been racing through space at 186,282 miles per second every moment since it was emitted.
Using some theoretical extrapolation based upon the Milky Way, scientists believe there must be more than 200 sextillion stars in the universe. That is 200 followed by 21 zeroes. The number of those stars having planetary systems capable of hosting human-style life defies imagination. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … Well, only God truly knows.
And that is kind of my point. I love to think about the universe because it is the only thing that is even close to being big enough to give me any kind of picture of God.
It also helps me see the problems mankind faces with a bit of perspective, and that alone makes my little daydream worth doing. We get so caught up in and bogged down by petty political crap, arguments, discrimination issues, wars, pandemics you name it that I find it tremendously helpful to allow my mind to be blown by what lies beyond.
I am so amazed by this planet, by its beauty and diversity; my mind goes into spasms of joy as I contemplate what else could be out there. It makes me wish to have been born in some later time when real space travel might be possible, to a time when we might actually have manned flight out of our solar system to our nearest neighboring star. That, by the way, would be Alpha Centauri A and B, a mere four and a quarter light years away.
No conventional matter can travel faster than the speed of light, but even if an object approaches light speed weird things happen to it relative to time. If you could travel on a starship at near the speed of light you would age at a rate disproportionately slow relative to a person standing on Earth. Yeah, it gets complicated.
If I could find that spaceship and rush over at near the speed of light I could be there and back in just under nine years. Well, that would be nine years for me, but everybody I know would be long, long dead, since time for yall would pass ever so much faster relative to me because every day of travel at near-light speed would be about 200 years of elapsed time on Earth.
Oh well, maybe I will try traveling to another universe using a convenient Einstein-Rosen Bridge so I can tell my friends about the wonders out there while they still live. I wonder if there will be a bridge toll, or maybe even better, a bridge troll? Wouldnt that be fun!
Gary Cosby Jr. is photo editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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