The (Really) Big Picture

 

Four trillion is a really big number. It’s big if you’re talking about dollars, as @davew illustrated in his charming That’s an Awful Lot of Briefcases post a few days ago. But it’s big pretty much no matter what you’re talking about: 4,000,000,000,000 — with all its commas and zeros — doesn’t give our minds a lot to hold on to. It isn’t relatable.

Big numbers, and bigness in general, have been on my mind lately, and they have nothing to do with whatever is going on in our nation’s dysfunctional capital.

Since I was a young man I have found a kind of comfort in the world’s vastness. As a kid, I would sometimes lie awake at night thinking about the strange behemoths that inhabit the depths of our oceans, particularly the mysterious giant squids. Think of that: right now, as you read this, these goliaths of the deep are going about their business in the icy blackness two and three thousand feet below the ocean surface. That’s real; that’s happening right now. As a kid, thinking about that, about how distant and alien it seemed, took me out of myself. It still does.

I’ve been programming computers for a living for more than forty years. Sometimes the work is stressful, with deadlines and technical challenges and deeply buried bugs that can shake a guy’s confidence. I learned long ago that it’s good to walk away from the screen and step outside. I find immense relief in looking at the sky on a sunny day, focusing on the leafy edges of green sharply defined against the blue. Focusing on infinity, or something like it. I feel myself slowing down when I do that, my shoulders relaxing, something deep inside me uncoiling and taking in oxygen. Sometimes, in the throes of a big project, I forget to do this. I’m fortunate that people who know me well will notice, and will remind me to step outside when they sense that I’m wound too tightly.

The sky is big. There are things that are bigger.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. It’s tiny compared to the sun, but still three hundred times the mass of Earth. There’s a cyclone of some sort on that planet, one big enough for us to see from here. It’s been raging for well over a hundred years, and perhaps much longer. It’s big: you could drop two Earths into it and it would swallow them whole. (Two Earths would add less than a percentage point to the mass Jupiter. It’s that big.)

But Jupiter, as big as it is, isn’t all that big compared to our solar system. If you want to talk about trillions, we can talk about trillions of miles right here at home: the real width of our solar system, if you count all of the rocks and small planet-like things that are way out past the planet-like thing we call Pluto, is probably a couple of trillion miles. Maybe a bit more.

Millions of rocks, many of them practically as big as planets, hidden out in the icy fringe of our own solar system in something called the Oort cloud — the place where we think most of the comets live. That really is big, right?

Yes, sure it is. But not really, really big. Let’s talk about really big. Let’s get some perspective.

Our galaxy, which we call the Milky Way, is big, but not as galaxies go.

An aside: “Milky Way” is a funny name for a galaxy, but it comes from the way the galaxy looks when you see it in a truly dark sky. We’re out toward the edge of our disk-shaped galaxy, and when you look toward its center you see the bulge of stars that make up the thicker central portion of that disk. To the ancients, the whiteness of that spray of stars looked like milk spilled across the sky, and so we call the galaxy in which we live the Milky Way. In fact, the word “galaxy” comes from the Greek “γαλαξίας,” which means, literally, “milky.” I like that.

Anyway, as I said, our galaxy isn’t particularly big as galaxies go. The next galaxy over, the Andromeda galaxy, is far larger. Our own galaxy contains a “mere” two or three hundred billion stars. Andromeda might contain a trillion stars. That’s pretty big.

Another aside: If you want truly big things to worry about, you might want to dwell on the distressing reality that our galaxy and Andromeda are rushing toward each — collision is inevitable — at about a quarter of a million miles per hour. That’s fast, but Andromeda is a long way away, so we have a few billion years to get ready.

Trillions of stars is a lot. As I said, trillions of anything is a lot, and stars are big.

But point our strongest telescope pretty much anywhere in the sky. Pick a spot that looks completely empty, some dark patch in a dark corner of the cosmos. Dial it up to the greatest magnification possible, so you’re looking deep into a tiny little piece of our universe. What you’ll see in that tiny little space is tens of thousands of points of light. And each of those points is another galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars. There are probably trillions of galaxies. We’re not really sure because we haven’t looked everywhere.

Some of those galaxies are so far away that it has taken their light, moving as fast as anything in our universe can move, more than ten billion years to reach us.

Now we’re talking big. What we don’t know is how much bigger it gets. It seems likely that the universe is many times larger than we’re able to see (than we’ll ever be able to see because light, as fast as it is, isn’t fast enough to ever reach us), not scores of billions of lightyears across but hundreds of billions. It’s possible that those additional hundreds of billions of lightyears of space look just like what we can see, and contain thousands of trillions of galaxies with their hundreds of billions of stars. But that’s speculation; what we can see seems, finally, to be big enough to qualify as truly big.

For all that, there are things that are, in some sense, bigger still. We have numbers for which there is no analog in the realm of the physical universe, numbers so huge that, if every atom and particle of matter in every one of those galaxies were a billion zeros and we strung them all together and put a one in front, it would hardly begin to approach the value of these preposterous, yet strangely meaningful, quantities that mathematicians have concocted.

Sometimes, when I’m lying awake at night, I think about big numbers and the fact that they are, in some sense, out there. That somewhere far, far down one or another numerical sequence, something interesting happens, some previously unexpected yet now predictable inflection point is reached, some relationship that held for a monotonous few million digits suddenly fails in a  gaudy and spectacular way.

That also takes me out of myself and shifts my perspective. Occasionally, I like that.

The universe is extraordinarily big and rich, and impossibly out of reach.


Down the hall, thirty feet away, my youngest is reading, home from college for a few days. She has her cat and her dog on the bed with her. She will graduate soon, and move to a big city to pursue a job in finance. There are stars in our galaxy that are so large that, if one were where our sun is located, the Earth would be physically within the star itself. That’s very big, though not compared to the universe.

She is thinking of Chicago. Chicago is 850 miles away. That is a very big number.

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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Well done, but Douglas Adams had a shorter version:

     

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Try this one:

     

    • #2
  3. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    I enjoy the movements of the planets. Lately I am entertained by Jupiter chasing Saturn across the sky. That description is just our perspective. It is marvelous to contemplate the orbital paths and earthly rotations that give them the motions that we perceive.

    • #3
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Henry Racette: Think of that: right now, as you read this, these goliaths of the deep are going about their business in the icy blackness two and three thousand feet below the ocean surface.

    Trying to fend off the sperm whales.

    • #4
  5. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: Think of that: right now, as you read this, these goliaths of the deep are going about their business in the icy blackness two and three thousand feet below the ocean surface.

    Trying to fend off the sperm whales.

    It’s also kinda amazing to think of whales going so deep when they have to come up for air, but they do!

    • #5
  6. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    That’s a great ending, Henry.  

    • #6
  7. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    That’s a great ending, Henry.

    That’s really the point of the whole thing isn’t it, @kentforrester ? 850 can be more significant than a trillion.

    • #7
  8. GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms Reagan
    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Malpropisms
    @GLDIII

    Looking for perspective?

    This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this galaxy-studded view represents a “deep” core sample of the universe, cutting across billions of light-years.

    If you look at this bit of sky with either the naked eye or a modest ground based telescope you would see nothing. This image was build over days of looking in the darkest recesses of a small “unlit” corner of our universe. 

    Numbers do not do these thoughts justice.

    • #8
  9. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    JoelB (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    That’s a great ending, Henry.

    That’s really the point of the whole thing isn’t it, @ kentforrester ? 850 can be more significant than a trillion.

    And our tendency to break really big numbers into something more relatable – 850 miles to Chicago is a 2 hour plane flight (4 hours in the air transport system – fortunately you can get to Chicago nonstop from almost anywhere, if you can tolerate today’s air transport system) or a day and a half driving a car. 

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    That’s a great ending, Henry.

    That’s really the point of the whole thing isn’t it, @ kentforrester ? 850 can be more significant than a trillion.

    And our tendency to break really big numbers into something more relatable – 850 miles to Chicago is a 2 hour plane flight (4 hours in the air transport system – fortunately you can get to Chicago nonstop from almost anywhere, if you can tolerate today’s air transport system) or a day and a half driving a car.

    I built a restaurant in Schaumburg once, and as best I can recall, it was an eight hour drive from Knoxville.

    • #10
  11. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    I don’t think our teeny little brains are capable of grasping the enormity of our expanding universe, so the idea of humans making pronouncements about anything is the height of both ignorance and arrogance.

    Instead of “Homo sapiens” perhaps a better name for our species would be “Dunning-Krugers.”

    • #11
  12. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Henry Racette:

    She is thinking of Chicago. Chicago is 850 miles away. That is a very big number.

    Ah, but Chicago is about 1.368 trillion micrometers away, if I have the math right.  Now that’s a very big number.  :)

    You have an interesting response to the vastness of the universe, Hank, if you find it comforting.  I’ve heard (or maybe read) of other people who consider such vastness, and find that it makes them feel insignificant.

    CS Lewis has an interesting essay on the issue of the vastness of space, titled Dogma and the Universe, here.  It’s only a few pages long.

     

    • #12
  13. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Henry Racette:

    She is thinking of Chicago. Chicago is 850 miles away. That is a very big number.

    Ah, but Chicago is about 1.368 trillion micrometers away, if I have the math right. Now that’s a very big number. :)

    You have an interesting response to the vastness of the universe, Hank, if you find it comforting. I’ve heard (or maybe read) of other people who consider such vastness, and find that it makes them feel insignificant.

    CS Lewis has an interesting essay on the issue of the vastness of space, titled Dogma and the Universe, here. It’s only a few pages long.

     

    There’s always the Total Perspective Vortex.

    • #13
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    GLDIII Purveyor of Splendid Ma… (View Comment):

    Looking for perspective?

    This view of nearly 10,000 galaxies is the deepest visible-light image of the cosmos. Called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, this galaxy-studded view represents a “deep” core sample of the universe, cutting across billions of light-years.

    If you look at this bit of sky with either the naked eye or a modest ground based telescope you would see nothing. This image was build over days of looking in the darkest recesses of a small “unlit” corner of our universe.

    Numbers do not do these thoughts justice.

    When I see a beautiful picture like that, I like to remember that Americans designed and built the Hubble Space Telescope that took those pictures.  Human and American ingenuity enabled that picture.

    • #14
  15. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    fortunately you can get to Chicago nonstop from almost anywhere

    Fortunately?

    • #15
  16. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    fortunately you can get to Chicago nonstop from almost anywhere

    Fortunately?

    What’s even worse is that implies Chicago can get to US!!!

    • #16
  17. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    So, Frontier Developments created a video game called Elite: Dangerous, with a 1:1 scale Milky Way Galaxy.  That game is set a thousand years in the future, where humanity has outposts as far as the Pleiades, the Witch Head Nebula, and the Coal Sack Nebula.  The hyperdrive in that game can travel over 65 light years with a single jump.  I was able to travel to the Crab Nebula and back in a week.  Exploration is a big deal in that game, and can be highly rewarding.

    This game has been out for over 6 years now.  People have crossed the galaxy, visited the supermassive black hole in the core, and even mapped out pulsar highways to get around faster.  There are vast, player created databanks of star systems.

    Yet even with all of these advantages, less than 1% of the galaxy has been visited.   Space is a big place.

    • #17
  18. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Henry Racette:

    Four trillion is a really big number. It’s big if you’re talking about dollars, as @davew illustrated in his charming That’s an Awful Lot of Briefcases post a few days ago. But it’s big pretty much no matter what you’re talking about: 4,000,000,000,000 — with all its commas and zeros — doesn’t give our minds a lot to hold on to. It isn’t relatable.

    <snip>

    The universe is extraordinarily big and rich, and impossibly out of reach.


    Down the hall, thirty feet away, my youngest is reading, home from college for a few days. She has her cat and her dog on the bed with her. She will graduate soon, and move to a big city to pursue a job in finance. There are stars in our galaxy that are so large that, if one were where our sun is located, the Earth would be physically within the star itself. That’s very big, though not compared to the universe.

    She is thinking of Chicago. Chicago is 850 miles away. That is a very big number.

    I think here you’re getting at something we might call Racette’s Theory of Relativity.

    • #18
  19. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Caryn (View Comment):

    Henry Racette:

    Four trillion is a really big number. It’s big if you’re talking about dollars, as @ davew illustrated in his charming That’s an Awful Lot of Briefcases post a few days ago. But it’s big pretty much no matter what you’re talking about: 4,000,000,000,000 — with all its commas and zeros — doesn’t give our minds a lot to hold on to. It isn’t relatable.

    <snip>

    The universe is extraordinarily big and rich, and impossibly out of reach.


    Down the hall, thirty feet away, my youngest is reading, home from college for a few days. She has her cat and her dog on the bed with her. She will graduate soon, and move to a big city to pursue a job in finance. There are stars in our galaxy that are so large that, if one were where our sun is located, the Earth would be physically within the star itself. That’s very big, though not compared to the universe.

    She is thinking of Chicago. Chicago is 850 miles away. That is a very big number.

    I think here you’re getting at something we might call Racette’s Theory of Relativity.

    Even better:  Racette’s Theory of Relativity for Relatives.  Or, Racette’s Theory of Relative Relativity.

    • #19