Thursday, December 2, 2010

Universe overcrowded: Illegal immigrants to blame?

Disclaimer: I suck at science. Chemistry, biology, physics - they all hate me. Sure, I can memorize some shit and pass a test, but any real understanding of why cells divide when it just seems to complicate things, or why protons and electrons continue to hang out together when they clearly have such different points of view, eludes me. Regardless, science intrigues me. It's possible to be fascinated by something while not understanding it at all. Take women, for example. But I digress.

Science is the topic because of a new report in the journal Nature. Turns out there may be three times as many stars in the universe as previously believed. Last I heard, the universe is still expanding, so there's probably plenty of room for all this so you don't really need to clear out the garage.

It's not like there weren't a lot of stars to begin with. Like 400,000,000,000 (400 billion) here in the good old Milky Way, and 1,000,000,000,000 (1 trillion) in some other galaxies, and the old estimate was that the universe had around 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 sextillion - and that's a real word, even though I wish I'd made it up.) Now the big brains tell us the actual number may be closer to 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (300 sextillion), which is, by any measure, a fuck of a lot of stars.

Considering that most of us use the words "million" and "billion" as if they're roughly the same (thanks to the federal budget folks for that, I think, because they don't seem to know the difference) it's really challenging to get your mind around these big numbers. One of the most useful methods of putting big numbers into context is to correlate them to time. For example:
  • One million seconds = 12 days
  • One billion seconds = 31 years
  • One trillion seconds = 31,689 years
  • Three hundred sextillion seconds = just a really, really long time. Longer than two operas back-to-back maybe.
Logic suggests that with all those stars there must be lots and lots of planets, and some of those planets must be pretty similar to ours, so the likelihood that there is life out there beyond us is increased. That leads directly to a musing on what a revelation it would be if there was, at last, some undeniable discovery, some evidence that we are not alone. How human experience would be forever altered if it was learned that there are billions or trillions more creatures - perhaps not that different from us? - living out there in far-flung galaxies. Imagine the possibilities for the expansion of the human mind and culture, and the pursuit of meaning. Not to mention the potential for retail sales growth!

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