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Space, Time, and Marbles

sun marbleWe’ve all looked up at the sky and wondered. We’ve also heard our share of theories, mathematical descriptions, and wordy attempts to put into comprehension the size of the universe. The whole concept can be so mind-numbing that we effectively tune out, buried by the sheer immensity of it all. “It’s huge,” we all think to ourselves.

M has queued up The Universe on Netflix, and we’ve cracked into a couple episodes in the series. The topics explored include the Big Bang, the sun, the nine planets, cosmic holes, other galaxies, astrobiology, extraterrestrial intelligence, and so on.

The other night, unable to sleep, I jumped ahead to the final episode in the collection, Beyond the Big Bang. This is not a topic unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen late-night cable television, but it presented a visual that I’m still thinking about days later. Particularly tonight, while walking the dogs under the stars.

Follow me on this one. It gets pretty geeky, so hang in there.

Let’s begin with the speed of light, and the concept of a light year. Do any of us really comprehend what that means? A light year? A light year is the distance light travels in one year. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. To put this into perspective, imagine turning on a flashlight and shining it across the ground. The flashlight’s beam would travel around the circumference of the earth seven times in one second.

SEVEN times around the WHOLE earth in a SINGLE second.

Think about that. And compare it to your most recent transcontinental flight in an airplane. You’d have to ride a bicycle as fast as you can nonstop 24 hours a day for nearly two years to cover the distance light travels in a one second.

Okay, back to our show.

In the ‘Beyond the Big Bang’ episode of ‘The Universe’, they did a remarkable job at illustrating just how far away our neighboring stars are from us. Now, we’ve all looked up at stars, right? And we collectively agree that they’re really, really, really far away. Like, you know, millions of light years or whatever. But just what does that mean, exactly? Can our minds even begin to comprehend such distances?

Here’s the visual ‘The Universe’ uses to describe just how far away the stars in the sky are from us:

Imagine our sun. It’s the center of our solar system, nearly a million times larger than our own planet. Now, for a moment, imagine that our sun is a marble on a sidewalk in Manhattan, New York. Earth, by comparison, would be nothing more than a grain of sand about an inch or three away from that marble. Can you see it?

Visualize that marble sitting in the streets of New York City. Now, to give you an idea of how far away we are from everything, the star nearest to our own sun is a sun called Betelgeuse. If Betelgeuse were a marble in our illustration, it would be sitting in Washington DC. To get to Betelgeuse by a rocket would take us over 75,000 years. To shine a light to Betelgeuse would take about four years. Four years at the speed of light.

But wait. That’s nothing. The second closest star to our sun is ridiculously farther away than Betelgeuse. How far away, exactly? Well, if it were a marble in our illustration, it would be in Rio De Janeiro. That means the closest star besides Betelgeuse is 100 light years away from our sun.

But it’s just a number, right? Again, mind-numbing. So mind-numbing that we don’t even feel it anymore. But here’s what dawned on me:

When we go out to the sky and look up, the light we see from that neighbor star is 100 years old, meaning it left the star 100 hundred years ago and is only arriving to Earth now. 100 years is a long time. Longer than most lifetimes. And in an almost lazy way, due to the roundness of the number 100, it’s as if we disregard it before stopping to truly comprehend it. 100 years, people. At the speed of light.

For additional perspective, let’s turn our attention to The Flintstones, who celebrated their 50th birthday last week. Ponder the concept of 1960 for a moment. Go back to that evening The Flintstones first aired. Imagine somebody getting up from the television, grabbing a flashlight, and going out to their front lawn to shine it into the sky. That beam has been traveling at the speed of light since 1960, for 50 years, nonstop. It’s been traveling as we’ve lived out our lives, fought our wars, dreamed our dreams, elected our presidents, tossed out our fashions, changed our evolving musical tastes. For generations. People have been born, lived full lives, and died since 1960, and that flashlight beam has continued its course, at the speed of light, in our sleep, traveling nonstop to that neighbor star.

And its only halfway there.

Take that concept and apply it to the reality that our sun and that neighbor star are only two stars in a galaxy of billions of stars, each of them just as far away from each other as these two. And when you get to the edge of our galaxy, you’ll reach an incalculable void that separates it from yet another galaxy, which in turn is just one of billions of other galaxies.

This is nothing we haven’t known all along, I suppose. But the whole marble analogy the other night painted the obvious picture for me quite clearly, and it’s tickling my brain in a noticeable way this evening. To say the numbers are staggering is cliche, and I am among the many who must laugh at those who conclude that Earth’s Man is the end of creation’s line. Such a conclusion is based on fear, confusion, and ignorance.

Do the math. How self-centered must a creature be to think the universe revolves around it? It seems to me that its creator would regard such a notion as one of His universe’s greatest sins.

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