Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Million Seems Like a Lot, But It's Chump Change

I thought of another scale-related topic while writing my second to last entry. Why are these topics positive? I think because, as I've said before, looking at the world as it really is helps put your problems in perspective, and a little perspective is always a good thing.

What strikes me is how mind-bogglingly large numbers are the rule in the universe, not the exception. We think of a million or a billion as very large figures, but most things in the universe, both on the largest of scales and the smallest completely outpace those puny numbers.

Look at the number of cells in the human body. It's estimated to be 50 trillion, and that just counts the cells that are actually us. The flora that lives in and on us (bacterial cells are much smaller than human tissue cells) number four quadrillion! That's a four followed by 15 zeros. And, going smaller, we saw two entries ago that the number of atoms in the human body is roughly seven followed by 27 zeros. Seven octillion atoms, or, stated another way, seven billion billion billion. And that's just in one of us. Try and imagine the number of cells, or perish the calculation, the number of atoms contained in all 6.7 billion of us!

And we're just one species on the planet. How many cells exist in total across the entire planet, in both bacterial and other unicellular creatures and in all higher, multi-cellular plants and animals? I can't find definite numbers, but just in terms of bacterial life it's estimated that there is five nonillion (5 followed by 30 zeroes) individual bacterial cells across the planet and in the oceans. That's akin to taking five billion of anything, multiplying that by a billion, then multiplying the result by a trillion. That's just the bacterial life, most of which we can't even see.

Can your brain encompass a figure that massive? Mine can't. I doubt many people can truly grasp any figure on that grand a scale. And yet we have verifiable examples of numbers that large all around us.

Next time you're in your kitchen, dunk your finger in boiling water. Okay, don't actually do that. But imagine it. You know it's hot! We've all probably come into contact accidentally with small bits of boiling water or oil, and it's an uncomfortable experience.

Water boils at 212°F. A candle flame burns at 1,830°F. Lightning creates temperatures of 54,000°F on average. Even the lowest of these temperatures can kill most life on this planet. And they are insignificant on a cosmic scale. Our sun's core burns at roughly 28 million degrees Fahrenheit. The core temperature of a star as it collapses just before supernova is 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. And, as absurdly hot as that is, it's nothing compared to the theoretical hottest temperature possible. That, the Planck temperature, which is rare (it occurred only in the first few nearly unmeasurable instants after the Big Bang, and in the crushing final moments of a black hole) is computed to be about a quarter of a hundred nonillion degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 followed by 32 zeros.) That's a measure of heat completely incomprehensible to the human mind.

Coming back to our local corner of the universe, here's a small snippet from the Wikipedia entry on the Sun. This is a description of what goes on during the nuclear fusion reaction at the Sun's core.

The proton-proton chain [the fusion reaction] occurs around 9.2 × 1037 times each second in the core of the Sun. Since this reaction uses four protons, it converts about 3.7 × 1038 protons (hydrogen nuclei) to helium nuclei every second (out of a total of ~8.9 × 1056 free protons in the Sun), or about 6.2 × 1011 kg per second. Since fusing hydrogen into helium releases around 0.7% of the fused mass as energy, the Sun releases energy at the matter–energy conversion rate of 4.26 million metric tons per second, 383 yottawatts (3.83×1026 W), or 9.15 × 1010 megatons of TNT per second.

Those are ginormous numbers. And that happens every second!

The lesson here is the same lesson I've spun at least a dozen times on this blog, in different forms. Remember your place in the universe. Remember that you are beyond insignificant in the grand scheme of things. You tiny blip of existence, your, if you're lucky 80 to 90 years pales in comparison to the scale of just about everything else around you. So just accept it. You don't matter. None of us do. Therefore you're free. Free to make your life whatever you want it to be, because ultimately you and your small group of equally insignificant entities are the only bits of matter in the entire universe that care.

Keep yourself in perspective. It's not as bad as you think it is, and nowhere near as bad as it could be. Remember the supernova.

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