Sunday, July 19, 2009

Us, Relative to Everything Else

This is an entry I've been wanting to do for a very long time, but I've been putting off because I knew writing it the way I wanted to would take a good four or five hours. But it's a topic that's very meaningful for me, so I knew one day I'd make the investment. It's a bit long, but worth it. I hope you'll invest the ten minutes or so it might take to read it. It may change the way you view the world.

You may have seen the images I'm using in this illustration before. They've been floating around the web for a while. I'd credit them, but they apparently appeared anonymously originally, so there are no credits to be given. I'll just give heartfelt thanks to whoever created them.

We humans imagine ourselves to be very important, our problems and issues of vast significance. And some of us imagine themselves better than their fellow humans, or more enlightened than the rest of humanity, and sometimes commit horrible atrocities for either personal gain or to propagate their view of the world to other people. So let's try and find out, in the grand scheme of things, how important we humans really are.

To begin, let's take an average human. A single, solitary individual. Now imagine that single individual in the company of 6.772 billion other individuals, the entire world population, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. Each of these individuals, weight averaged between the sexes, weighs, on average 150 pounds. That gives a total mass for our species of roughly 1.015 trillion pounds. That's a scale breaker.

But compare that to the planet we all live on. The earth, measuring at one earth mass (obviously) weighs roughly 1.317 x 10 to the 25th pounds, or 10,317,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. A bit bigger. The weight of our entire species, every member of our population combined is a sneeze in the ocean of our planets mass. Now let's compare that planet to it's cosmic kin.

Here's earth, relative in size to the other planets (or dwarf planet, in Pluto's case) in our solar system smaller than earth. Impressive, aren't we? We could punt Pluto into next week.

Okay. Now here we are relative to all the planets in our solar system, the larger bodies included.

Not quite so impressive anymore. Earth's equatorial radius (ER) is 7,926 miles and has an earth mass of one. Pluto looks tiny relative to earth, with an ER of only 1,429 miles and an earth mass of .0026 (meaning it's 26 ten thousandths as massive as earth), it barely exists in our comparison next to Jupiter. Jupiter has an ER of 88,731 miles and an earth mass of 377.833, meaning it's 377 times more massive than earth. This shrinks earths place in the cosmos significantly, and we have a long way to go. Here we are relative to our sun.

The sun has an ER of 432,163 miles (earth, if you remember had an ER of only 7,926 miles) and an earth mass of 332,830. The sun accounts for more than 98% of the total mass of our solar system. It would take 109 earths, end to end, to stretch the distance of the sun across and 1.3 million earths to fill it's entire volume. It takes light, traveling at 299,792,458 meters per second 8 minutes and 19 seconds to travel from the sun to earth. The sun's core reaches temperatures of 27,000,000° F and has an atmospheric pressure 340 billion times more intense than Earth's air pressure at sea level. Beginning to feel a bit puny? Maybe a little bit insignificant? That's good. Let's forge on.

As big as our sun is, relative to us, it's tiny compared to some of its compatriots. Here's our sun compared to other known stars.

The small print that's hard to read says, "Jupiter is about 1 pixel in size" and "Earth is invisible at this scale." Incredible, right? Our sun, our massive star, 332,830 times more massive than our planet is a ten pound weakling next to the size of other stars. Sirius, the Dog Star, part of the Big Dog constellation, is 8.6 light years away from us, meaning it takes light 8.6 years to travel from Sirius to earth. Compare that to the 8.25 minutes it takes our sun's light to reach us.

Pollux is an orange giant star 34 light years away from earth in the constellation of Gemini. It has 8.8 times the radius of our sun and is 32 times brighter. Arcturus is a red giant star in the constellation Bo├Âtes, 36.7 light years from earth with a total power output 180 times that of our sun. You can see that the relative size difference between our sun and Arcturus is larger than the relative difference Jupiter and our sun. At Arcturus's scale the earth is invisible, and there are 6.772 billion of us living on that invisible mote. Ever read Horton Hears a Who? Continuing on.

Here's where Arcturus, and our sun by proxy, sits relative to some even larger stars.

That tiny little orange circle just to the left of Rigel is Arcturus. We see Pollux, Sirius and our sun further to the left. It's hard to read, but the small print says that our sun is only one screen pixel at this scale, and Jupiter is invisible. That's our massive, life-giving sun, a mere dot compared to Antares. Antares, a neighbor 600 light years away in our Milky Way galaxy, in the constellation Scorpius is classified as a Class M Red Supergiant star with a diameter 800 times that of our sun, with 65,000 times the total power output. Our sun gives off enough power to warm our planet at a distance of 92.5 million miles. That alone is a staggering amount of power, and Antares gives off 65,000 times more power than that. At 600 light years away, more than 18 times further away from us than Pollux or Arcturus it still ends up being the sixteenth brightest star in the night sky.

And Antares isn't even the biggest star known today. That title goes to VY Canis Majoris a red hypergiant star more than 5,000 light years away from earth that was recently calculated, at its upper size to be 2,100 times the size of our sun! That's a little more than two and a half times the size of Antares. Massive by ANY definition.

Compare yourself to VY Canis Majoris. And then consider that VY Canis Majoris, as big as it is, is just one star amidst the estimated 200 to 400 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, a galaxy which is estimated to be roughly 100,000 light years across. Remember from earlier that light from our sun takes 8.25 minutes to get to earth? It would take that same light 100,000 years to cross our galaxy, passing billions of stars and an innumerable number of planets. Our sun is estimated to be only 26,000 light years from the galactic center, and it takes 225 to 250 million years for our solar system to complete a single galactic orbit. Compare yourself and the sun you orbit to the space required to fit 200 to 400 billion other stars, many much bigger than our sun. Is the fact that your neighbors lawn is bigger than yours really all that important by comparison?

Now realize that our Milky Way Galaxy is only one of an estimated 80 billion galaxies in the observable universe, containing 30 to 70 sextillion stars (that's a 3 or a 7 followed by 21 zeroes). We are orbiting a small sun, an afterthought amidst the 30 to 70 sextillion stellar relatives we share in our observable universe, the edge of which is 46.5 billion light years away.

But the universe is only 13.7 billion year old? How can we be seeing something whose light took 46.5 billion light years to travel to us? I quote wikipedia:

The age of the universe is about 13.7 billion years, but due to the expansion of space we are now observing objects that are now considerably farther away than a static 13.7 billion light-years distance. The edge of the observable universe is now located about 46.5 billion light-years away.

I know. Things are starting to get a bit mind-bending. I'll close with one further calculation. The observable universe consists of everything out there, the light of which has had time to reach us. That's why our observable universe centers on the planet earth. Not because we're especially significant, but because we are here, observing. Light from all around the expanding universe has been traveling towards us (and every other point in the universe) since it was first emitted. The light that has been able to reach us creates the outer sphere of the observable universe for us. Life on another planet at another point in the universe would have a different observable universe. Which begs the question, how much bigger is the universe than what is observable for us? There is stuff beyond that threshold. One scientist has estimated that the rest of the universe is 24 times the size of our observable universe. That's potentially another 80 billion galaxies 24 times over.

So here we are, feeling important and superior because of our microwave ovens and great literature. But we are a completely insignificant dot of nothing against the cosmic background. I mean really. Try and let the depth of what you just read sink in. We're a brief hiccup against cosmic space. Our entire civilization is a fraction of a blink of an eye against cosmic time. Our entire power output since the dawn of man wouldn't light a candle in the universe. We are so fragile compared to the monstrously violent, enormously powerful vacuum we orbit inside of.

Some of you know I'm an atheist. For me, compared to the awesome majesty which is just our observable universe, our small concepts of god can be a little petty and silly. Please keep reading. I don't mean to insult any of you that do believe in god. I just want to explain why this topic is so dear to my heart. In a universe so much mind-bogglingly bigger than us, the need for a creator god goes out the window. Our god concepts and religions have simply been us trying to understand our place in the world. Now we know our place, and it's much smaller and insignificant than we ever could have imagined. Just 400 years ago, prior to Galileo, the dominant view of the cosmos was that earth was directly at the center, with the sun orbiting the earth. We've learned quite a bit since then. As our significance in the universe decreases, the idea that an all powerful god would somehow stake his entire career on us gets less sensible.

The "my god is greater than your god" game is meaningless when placed against a backdrop 30 to 70 sextillion other stars. Why do none of our religious texts mention the entirety of god's creation? Because we didn't know about it when we wrote them. For me, all our religious beliefs do is separate us. Create "us against them" mentalities. They are harmful to human life, as is any divisive philosophy. Especially given how insignificant we are on the cosmic stage. Instead of laying a supernatural realm over our reality, just try and step back. Our universe is bigger, more complicated, and more amazing than anything man could ever dream up. And we are so unimportant in that context. The star Antares doesn't know we're here, and wouldn't care a whit if it did.

I've been asked by a few people, indirectly, (you know who you are) how I could possibly not believe in god. This is how. Human civilization has come, and will go, in an instant compared with the age of the universe. No story we can ever tell, no religious text we can ever formulate will be able to infuse meaning into such a brief stay on a such a infinitesimally tiny swath of universal real estate. The universe is far more than any human mind could ever encompass, and I'm happy to be forever entranced by that beauty. For me, having to involve a creator god simply diminishes the grandeur of the universe, in a desperate attempt to create meaning that just isn't there.

We humans are meaningless, except to each other. So instead of fighting over ancient beliefs, trying to dominate each other for no good reason, let's work together to better our world and our lives. No one's going to do it for us. Not the universe, for sure. We barely exist as far as it's concerned. There is no god entity out there to save us from ourselves. It's us and us alone. Let's make the best of our time here and stop arguing over meaningless philosophies.

Our place in the universe is a positive because it shows us that life is meaningless, except for the meaning we give it. Let's make that meaning universally good for once.

One planet, one people.


  1. An interesting read. Only those which chose to pit one denomination over another sour the my humblest opinion. If we could just realize and appreciate that we are all equal (hard to do in the 'strongest survive' world we have here), then we'd be a lot happier.

  2. "More Than A Carpenter" by Josh McDowell changed my perspective on things. You are more than you give yourself credit for.

  3. I've read it actually, Anonymous. It's an oversimplification masquerading as an unavoidable truth. For those that haven't read McDowell's short book, he presents only three possibilities for the claims Jesus is said to have made about himself. Either he was a lunatic, a charlatan (lair), or he was what it is said he was, the messiah. McDowell then eliminates the first two possibilities as implausible leaving us with the unavoidable conclusion of Jesus' divinity.

    Here's the rub. We aren't actually limited to just those three scenarios. Here's why. All of what the Bible says about Jesus came, not from him, but from the recollections of others. Mathew, Mark, Luke and John namely. Even by christian scholar's estimates, the earliest gospel wasn't written until somewhere between 50 and 60 CE, 50 to 60 years after Jesus' death.

    That's a lot of time for the mind to play tricks on itself. But Regardless of when they were written the point is that people other than Jesus wrote them. So the fourth possibility is that Jesus never claimed to be anything but a man, and his followers deified him after the fact. You don't even have to call out Jesus' followers as lairs for this scenario to make sense. They were entirely smitten with the man, and may have chosen to elevate Jesus to godhood out of reverence for his teachings. Or maybe they simply wanted him to be the son of god, and told Jesus' story that way. Whatever the case, you have to admit that at least the POSSIBILITY of a fourth scenario exists. And if so McDowell's assertion that Jesus had to be divine is NOT a forgone conclusion.

    Or don't accept the possibility. But then you're just lying to yourself.

    Anonymous. Did you actually read what I wrote or did you skim it, all the while listening to hymns in your head? An honest question. Try and read it again, and this time read it for what's actually there. If you had you wouldn't be trying to convince me otherwise.

  4. Oops. A quick correction to my last response. On second reading I realized that 50 to 60 CE is 20 to 30 years after Jesus' death. Shorter than I said, but still more than long enough for Jesus' followers to paint a more idealized version of him in their heads before writing the gospels. And that's by christian scholars' estimates. There are other estimates that date the first gospel to between 70 and 90 CE.

  5. Well said, Jason. Good luck trying to make us all get along. I endeavor to have a positive outlook, but in this regard I may be cynical. I believe it is part of human nature to attempt to dominate each other. Luckily, we haven't managed to wipe each other out... yet.

  6. The last thing I want to do is belittle any arguments, statements, or comments you have made. You make many good points throughout, but I consistently find the views of atheists as narrow as views of the religious.

    I follow your thought process, but do not agree with drawing a conclusion while still admitting that there is so much more to find out. What if we're not as insignificant as simple size makes us appear to be? Computer chips are now a pixel size compared to what they were 40 years ago, yet they hold amounts of information that were deemed astronomical back then. (Pun intended)

    What if we truly are a farm of an afterlife or another realm of being? I find it short sighted, yet more insightful than most extreme religious individuals, to limit our beliefs simply to what we know. It brings us back full-circle to the original belief you stated—the earth is the center of the universe. That was all we knew, so that was our conclusion. To conclude that there is no god or other possibilities simply because we know that there are so many other things out there is drawing a conclusion on something of which we may never know the truth.

    Now, I do not, nor will I ever, disagree with you when it comes to the concept of peace, acceptance, and tranquility amongst humans of all beliefs, sects, and races. I would love to see harmony in this world, but even the eucalyptus tree drops its leaves essentially scorching the ground so no other plant can rise up and over take it. This world, this Earth, is just as blind to the cruelty it cannot see or understand as the greater universe that surrounds it.

    The world will never change, even after humans are gone. Avalanches will always crush trees. Spiders will always prey on the fly, the lion on the zebra, and the drug lords on the starving. Why? It's the only way they can survive, or at least the only way they know how.

    What I think you should never do is question the belief. The belief is ingrained. It is usually difficult to change someone's mind, and honestly is not the true issue at hand. Instead, ask why the belief has to be the only belief that everyone shares. Why does it matter if someone believes in a high power, or a different higher power, or none at all? After all, it's all in the mind. It's when it becomes physical that it becomes an issue.

    Instead of looking out into the universe to prove that there isn't a god, we should look inward at ourselves and solve the riddle of why the question of god controls our lives. Why can't we accept each other without accepting each other's god, or lack there of? We are all we have in the vastness that you just thoroughly diagramed. Our answers are not out there, they are here on our invisible planet.