Tag Archives: science

Universal numbers

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Now and then, just for a moment, I’ll have a flash of insight that seems (to me) to be so profound it’s almost heart-stopping. It’s there, and then it’s gone. The brevity of the moment is excruciating. Afterwards, I try to recall all that happened in my head in that brief time, but it never really works. All I get is a memory, a reflection, an echo of perfection. For that’s what it is – a tiny shard of perfect vision, when everything lines up in harmony and totality. Last night I was watching a science documentary about the earth’s core and electro-magnetic fields.

Aurora Australis, courtesy of NASA

Aurora Australis, courtesy of NASA

Before sustainable life could develop on earth, so many factors had to be just right. From the materials in the core, to the size of the planet, distance from the sun….the list is long and complex. But somehow it happened.

That in itself was remarkable, wondrous, but when you consider how infinitesimally small our little planet is against the magnitude of just our galaxy, never mind the known universe, it is mind-blowing.

The numbers are astonishing. They are so large that to repeat them would be meaningless, because to most of us they are beyond comprehension. The distances between stars, the sheer size of galaxies – the numbers don’t compute in my brain. How many zeros do you add to a number before one or ten or a hundred more zeros don’t matter in human terms?

Stella Spine in the Eagle Nebula, 9.5 light-years high. Courtesy of NASA

Stella Spine in the Eagle Nebula, 9.5 light-years high. Courtesy of NASA

Trying to simply comprehend our place in this grand sweep of stars is humbling, to say the least. That sounds like a religious thought, but it isn’t. It’s mathematics. It’s putting things in perspective, measuring earth against the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, and realising how insignificant, and at the same time how unique, it is. Space exploration is starting to identify similar worlds to ours, or at least the possibility that there are some out there, somewhere.  But it’s doubtful that any of them will be anything like earth. Just one element different, one process not quite the same and another planet might be unrecognisable as somewhere we could call home, like small DNA differences producing radically different animals.

So, as if all this wasn’t enough to get my head round on a Tuesday evening, I started thinking about life spans rather than miles and light-years; time rather than distance. In the lifetime of the universe, life on earth from the first amino acids to the almighty mess we’re in today isn’t even a blink of a stellar eye. That’s what my insight was last night – that and so much more I could never put into words. Down and down the chain it goes, from life on earth, the life of mammals, the emergence of man, the dawn of recorded history. Pick a slice, any slice – the more you refine the selection, the smaller the significance in cosmic time. Until you get down to a single life, a year, an hour, a moment. Does a lifetime hold more value than the time it takes to draw a single breath? And drawing that breath, we look up at the night sky and see the light of a star that died billions of years ago, reaching us only now, impinging on our tiny, miraculous retinas until we blink and the star is gone. We are all star stuff.