How could we not be interested in Astronomy?
Something I think each of us does in our lives at one point or another is ponder the question… “How could people not be interested in…” followed by something we are obviously very interested in!
Of course this argument is purely subjective, whatever that thing is, we may feel it is so compelling. But for someone else it could be viewed as quite plain, boring, uninteresting, or simply unknown. Sometimes I find myself playing the same game, but about Astronomy.
My question is, “how could people not be interested in Astronomy?” so today I want to still present my subjective argument about Astronomy. In a word: “Why astronomy is captivating”
I will approach this from two angles:
- The magnitude of the universe
- Our literal connection with the universe
The magnitude of the universe
Have you ever stopped to think about the magnitude of the universe?
Actually, thinking of our day to day experience, do we really realise how small our little personal world is?
It’s actually quite hard to get people’s heads around it. To begin with, the universe is quite unfathomable in terms of size, we can obviously put some numbers to it — but does that mean we truly grasp it’s magnitude? I don’t think so. But still I think numbers are the key to at least giving us a glimpse:
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the area of my house is 200m². I think the size of someones house is something quite easy to grasp, as it is congruous with our everyday experience, we walk around it and spend much time in it. Good.
Sydney (the city that I live in) is about 12,145 km² (which again, is just a number, we don’t tend to associate or feel the magnitude of this), but to put that in perspective –that’s about 60 725 times the size of my house. (Wow that’s huge!). The size of Australia is about 7 692 024km² — which again is just a number, but to put it in perspective, that’s about 633 times the size of Sydney. That’s huge!
The surface area of the world is about 510,072,000 km², which is about 66 times the size of Australia. We tend to say “it’s a small world” often, but really, it isn’t. It’s a huge world. Bringing it back to my house, the surface area of the world is about 25 trillion times the size of my house. Trillion, that sounds big, we tend to associate this word with something big, but again, really, we don’t grasp how big that is.
But that’s just the surface area of the world, actually the world is a three-dimensional object, with a large majority of it uninhabitable by us and un-explorable. But yay, we have finally reached the size of the earth! Combining the words of David Deutsch and Neil deGrasse Tyson: We are chemical scum that live on a speck.
Something that amazed me as a child was reading that the great red spot on Jupiter is about three times the size of the earth. Think about that for a minute, A STORM on Jupiter is three times the size of something that is 25 trillion times the size of your house. I think it’s time for a picture or two:
Jupiter is over 120 times the size of the earth. Now we can move on to the next step, the size of the sun, which is about 986 times the size of Jupiter:
Now we are getting started. But really, just barely. I am going to skip a few steps to the largest known star, UY Scuti, which is about 5 billion times the size of our sun. Again, really, we are only just getting started. Instead of now going exhaustively to the end of this magnitude journey, I will simply refer to two external tools I found very interesting and helpful. First, this Gif image (which basically shows everything I have explained so far but with more details and less dramatic jumps than I have)
And finally, an interactive tool that I really like: the scale of the universe, which also goes into the small as well as the big.
It is estimated that the universe contains about 10^22 to 10^24 stars, which at the highest number is about 1 000 times an estimate of the number of grains of sand on the earth … Just think about that… For a second… Really you could think about it for a year and still not … truly… understand the magnitude of that statement.
Our literal connection to the universe
So what if the universe is so big that the whole “ant vs volcano” analogy is actually euphemistic? What does that have to do with me?
I think most people with an elementary understanding of physics know the relatively “oft” quoted fact “matter cannot be created nor destroyed, only converted from one form to another”, — if you apply that fact to your body, then maybe the question will arise:
Where do the atoms that comprise my body come from?
— Well actually that’s a question with many answers, actually it lacks another parameter, the time parameter; I.E “Where were the atoms that currently comprise my body at time X?”
At a superficial level “you are what you eat”, I.E the actual molecules of the food you ate previously were processed and certain elements extracted and used to construct the cells that comprise your body now — but then — like a four year old child, we could ask “but what about before they were food”?
… and what about before that?
Well concerning the actual fundamental origin, we don’t have enough information to give. But I can speak of a certain point of origin, that is, the heavy elements that comprise human and animal live were fused in the cores of the larger suns of eons past. My favourite public figure astrophysicist, Neil Degrasse tyson eloquently summarised it thus:
When asked “what is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe”, he answered:
The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures.
These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself.
These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.
So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity.
That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…” –Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The universe is in us