When I was a boy I hiked a lot in the Sierra mountains. One of my favorite places was Desolation Valley near Lake Tahoe. Camping next a pristine lake with canopy of thousands of stars in the sky over head provoked a lot of wondering. Men and women have been looking up and wondering about their place in the universe and what it is all about for thousands of years. And at 76, I still don’t know the answer. I do know that the universe is beyond huge and contemplating it makes me feel insignificant.
When you see a graphic of the sun and the solar system, the proportions are way off. The sun is 100 times the diameter of the earth. 1.3 million earths could fit inside of the sun. The sun is 800,000 miles in diameter, so if the earth were at the center of the sun, the surface of the sun would be 1.5 times past the moon. The Sun makes up 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System. And it’s the Earth and other planets and asteroids which make the most of that remaining .14% of the Solar System.
The earth is 25,000 miles around and 7000 miles in diameter. From the deepest oceans to the highest mountains is only 12 miles. If the earth was the size of a bowling ball, the surface would be smooth. The oceans would be wet spots. If you held it, it is unlikely that you would even feel thunderstorms or hurricanes. Perhaps there would be tinkling in the palms.
The earth is 93, 000,000 miles from the sun. Viewed from the sun, the earth is less the size of the period at the end of this sentence. From outside the solar system, the earth is less significant than one grain of sand on all the beaches on earth.
The sun in our sky is in an undistinguished part of the universe (the outskirts of the Virgo Supercluster) in an undistinguished galaxy (the Milky Way) in an undistinguished region (the Orion Arm).
And there are 400 billion suns in the Milky Way Galaxy. And there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. Astronomers have recently discovered a star 9 billion light years from Earth.
Many of the observations of the universe are made by scientists analyzing the electromagnetic spectrum which includes radio, microwave through far infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, gamma rays, and high energy gamma rays. Scientists are now beginning to measure gravitational waves in black holes using instruments so sensitive that they will measure vibrations the size 1/1000th the nucleus of an atom. The reason I am mentioning this is that it occurred to me that the ability to measure things beyond an entity’s ability to biologically perceive them would be a good criteria for determining intelligent live elsewhere in the universe.
If I take the perspective of me on earth from the end of the milky way galaxy or from a galaxy thousands or billions of galaxies away, my existence and mankind’s existence can only be viewed as inconsequential. If you look at the cosmos as whole you wouldn’t even know that the earth ever existed. So if I look at my place in the universe from the perspective of size, I am less than insignificant. And yes, I realize that my body has atoms from the big bang 13 billion years ago, so I am part of the universe. See Astrophysics For Those in a Hurry.
If the earth were the size of bowling ball, my 6”3” body would be proportionally less a micro.
So how about going the other way. What is my body compared to the smallest particle known? The average human’s size compared to the universe’s size is actually larger than the human size compared to a Planck scale, that is the size where classical physics stop working and only quantum physics is applicable. This means that there are particles that if scaled up to a meter would make my scale larger than the entire known universe. There are particles in us that are smaller compared to us than we are compared to the entire universe.
The other remarkable thing is that we, or at least the cosmologists, have learned such an incredible lot about the universe in just the last 100 years. One hundred years ago, we did not know that other galaxies existed. Now we know that there are billions and that there may even be multi-universes.
Some think that our consciousness is creating a “cosmic consciousness”. “This consciousness shows the cosmos to consist not of dead matter governed by unconscious, rigid, and unintended law; it shows it on the contrary as entirely immaterial, entirely spiritual and entirely alive; it shows that death is an absurdity, that everyone and everything has eternal life; it shows that the universe is God and that God is the universe, and that no evil ever did or ever will enter into it; a great deal of this is, of course, from the point of view of selfconsciousness, absurd; it is nevertheless undoubtedly true.” (Bucke) No, it is absurd. And it is not true just because you say it is. This is akin to Tertullian, an early Christian author who said, “I believe because it is absurd”, Which in its capacity for rationalization is something like the Guinness World Record: with that attitude, you can rationalize any idiocy ever imagined, and the sillier it is, the more reason you have to believe it. Ken Wilber’s The Religion of Tomorrow.
To me, it is the height of arrogance to think that the gelatinous blob in our skulls has some degree of significance and influence on the universe or that the universe does not exist and that our consciousness, which is eternal, does. Carl Sagan calls this the human centered conceit. Prior to sentient life on earth there was no consciousness. And you can say, well “How do you know it is not otherwise?” And to this I say, “I don’t, but neither do you”.
That being said…..
There is such a thing as Panpsychism, which postulates that the universe is conscious. And there are people who believe this and use current astrophysics and quantum physics to speculate about it. I am really annoyed by those who use the language of current physics such as particle theory and non locality to make shit up about spirituality and our place in whatever we are in. Deepak Chopra and Gregg Braden are examples of this. They promote spiritual ideas and move into nonsense language such as “pure potentiality”. (Google this for a meaningless definition.) It reminds me of the Wittgenstein’s quote that “when philosophical problems arise, language goes on a holiday.” Here is the Deepak Chopra Random Quote Generator
I attended a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat about ten years ago and again this last September. During my first retreat, I came to the very profound realization, at my core, that the only certainty is change. It was so profound for me that I cried. It is the only thing that I can say is true; that everything is changing every microsecond. And to know something, anything, with certainty was very meaningful. We all look for certainty in the mystery. Some through religion, and some through science and some through pure intuition.
Our planet and all of what we have created will disappear, perhaps in a supernova. And even more stupendous, the universe itself is expanding and will eventually become totally dormant according to all cosmological calculations.
And so in the final analysis, nothing matters. It is totally impersonal. And, paradoxically, everything matters to me, right now.
So all of the above is the logical and rational evidence-based thinking Bruce pontificating. As you will see in future blogs, there may be more to it when exploring subjective realms.
From so many years ago being awed in Desolation Valley, I am now awed by the images from the Hubble Telescope with such things as the The Pillars of Creation Galaxy.
The beauty is breathtaking and mystical. So from my perspective there is something sacred about the universe.
To learn more about the universe just search Google. This TED talk will give you a 20 minute history of the universe.
Here is a remarkable creation story written by 11 year old granddaughter Cassie Anderson. A Creation Story