Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
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.Published in