On the flight back from Boston this past Tuesday evening, JetBlue (which is an underadvertised and highly underrated airline, in my humble opinion) was playing a NatGeo special about the exploration of the known universe. It started from Earth, visiting each planet in our solar system before venturing out into the Milky Way at large, pressing upon the viewers the incomprehensible vastness of the space through which we were journeying just within our galaxy, to say nothing of the voids we crossed between galaxies.
This is one train of thought that never fails to knock me over with a potent blast of humility in the face of staggering implications: the universe is beyond what our minds can understand and grasp. I believe the metaphor used in the show was to represent the Milky Way as a beach. If Earth was the point where sand met surf, then a mere three inches further constituted the distance from Earth to Neptune. The planet is 30 times further from the Sun than Earth is, and yet even that massive distance was hardly even a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the Milky Way, to say nothing of the other billions of galaxies in our universe.
Mind-boggling, in the most literal sense.
Our oldest radio waves have hardly permeated a fraction of our galaxy; even if life existed in another Milky Way solar system, chances are excellent that the vast distances would put them out of reach for dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of years more. And even then, we would have no way to send a message. If the Earth was to vanish in a spectacular fireball tomorrow, the universe would not notice, just as we do not notice the stellar life cycles within our own galaxy or those beyond the Milky Way.
This blogger does an excellent job of correlating numbers with the subjective feeling of complete and utter insignificance on the grand stage of the universe. XKCD provides a wonderfully humorous analogy to our search for extraterrestrial life (which turns 50 very soon, by the way!…a forgettable amount of time on the scale of the universe), but I think the most amazing and humbling piece of information came from the narrator of the NatGeo special:
“We are the stuff of stars.”
From the moment matter appeared after the Big Bang, all the necessary components for galaxies, planets, stars, comets, asteroids, water, air, and life as we know it existed. The very atoms that interlocked over billions of years and were formed as a by-product of the fusion in early stars that exploded to form planets now exist as the building blocks of life. Atoms that, billions of years ago, existed in the galactic furnace of a giant star going supernova now comprise your skin, your muscles, your bones, your brain.
It’s unfathomable. Truly remarkable.
I turned 25 yesterday, and had one of the greatest birthday celebrations with some of the best people I know. I have to say, things are pretty good right now 🙂