Lead articles

The Weekly Scientist on…
The Scale of the Universe

I was once accused of being morbid and close to inconsolable depression when I expressed my devotion to the awareness of my own insignificance in the Universe. On the contrary, I find it interesting how momentary our lives are and what an absolutely awesome, absolutely enthralling backdrop we live in against space. It gives me perspective in an anthropological world that so often lacks it.

This awesome little animation below embodies this ‘bigger picture syndrome’ that my friends often hear me preach about. You don’t have to be a scientist of any sort to appreciate it, just open minded enough to realise your, or our, place in the scheme of things.

www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/525347 (click play button at the bottom when loaded)

We are all pretty familiar with the idea of the micro-world, maybe not all down to the scale of quarks or theoretical superstrings, but we have all become accustomed to minute atoms and electrons, viruses that are a fraction of a millimetre long and the importance of DNA, a molecule that encodes every living thing into existence. The larger scale, however, is more baffling and – for me – all the more interesting for it.

Consider this: Our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 271,000 astronomical units from Earth, 1 AU being the distance from the Sun to Earth, making it thousands of times further away than the Sun. It would take over 4 light years to reach….and that is our nearest neighbour! Our known cosmos extends billions of times further again and beyond that light may not have yet reached us in the time since the Big Bang, so the scale may extend a billion times further still. Despite these enormous scales, what we do know of our observed Universe is that it continues to operate under the same Laws that govern physics right here on Earth (with the exception of black holes, which we all know to be sneaky shortcuts for the Star Trek crew to time travel through). So it’s not all quite so strange….just very big!

I leave strangeness to the quantum world, where some believe (myself included) that 11 extra miniscule dimensions and theoretical ‘superstrings’ may just be the answer to how those Laws that govern the stars and planets may also work on the tiniest scales as well. When we are surrounded by such extremes of scale our individual existence is almost irrelevant, let alone the day to day mundanity of our lives. I counter the ‘morbidity’ of this realisation with the knowledge that Life has yet to be found on any level, let alone with the rich diversity that we are used to, anywhere else in that vast stretch of the Universe. We are it (so far!).

Consider for a moment, what it has taken for you to be here. Taking for granted the forces, dimensions and properties that had to be in place to create the Earth as an initial canvas, we still need to consider the billions of trials and errors that took place in order to generate a basic starting point for all life as we know it: a small self-replicating protein. The probability of this happening randomly falls somewhere in the region of 1 in 400,000,000,000. Thankfully, the great turbulent and fertile oceans of prebiotic Earth provided a giant laboratory for the soup of amino acids to play out billions of experiments simultaneously. Stretching down the evolutionary path, complex life eventually came to be and from many of the paths natural selection took, intelligent life and humans (and students!) evolved. If we were to replay the whole evolutionary sequence, there is no telling if it would generate the same species all over again. From here, consider the remarkable process of reproductive conception: In humans the race for life involves 250 million competitors and yet only one winner!

Call it destiny, a series of very fortunate coincidences or something more divine, you cannot escape the fact that what has been created on Earth is unique and beautiful. And we are part of that. The very fact that you are alive is not to be taken for granted. Nor is the fact that we are not apart from all the life you see around you. Man and Nature are not separate entities. We are but one branch of the evolutionary tree and are no more worthy of our place on this lucky little planet than every other species. Unfortunately, too many people would like to think otherwise and have lost sight of the world around them, let alone the Universe. It is this lack of perspective that bubbles and broils into ignorance and short-sightedness which can degrade into a lack of appreciation for life in general; to quote Douglas Adams “Id take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day”.

So, the next time you feel the weight of that deadline getting you down, annoyance at not being able to afford that night out, or perhaps just frustration at your own shortcomings, take a moment to consider the world at large. It needn’t be your place in the fabric of the Universe, maybe just your place and privilege within human society. The fact that you can read this via an internet connection tells me that already you have a privilege that many don’t and I can assume that you benefit from such things as running water and electricity. The fact that we are here at all certainly makes me appreciate Life, from the stupid little green fly that I have to rescue because it falls in my pint, to the new stars and galaxies that are ‘born’ in domains of space I can barely comprehend. I am grateful for it all and have found that this philosophy of mine has helped me through some hard times and made me truly appreciate how lucky I am to have the good times too. And hopefully it will do the same for you.

Jesamine Bartlett

(Image courtesy of rbsuperb)

Lead articlesScience
One Comment
  • vanessabrown
    1 October 2010 at 17:40
    Leave a Reply

    I LOVE this article. As someone that knows very, very, very little about science and doesn’t go out of her way to take an interest in it, this article is very accessible.

    Really enjoying the Weekly Scientist so far 🙂

  • Leave a Reply