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By Mike Gold 

Off Kilter | Our place in the universe


Last updated 12/11/2019 at 12:36pm

The title of this article comes, of all places, from that old rock and roll song: Up on the Roof – by the Drifters. The words from the song are (in part): “On the roof, it's peaceful as can be, and there the world below can't bother me.”

Cosmologists (and we’re talking scientists who examine the cosmos – not people who do your nails) study, among other things, the origin of the universe. This is a very weighty subject. It requires studying scientific data, theoretical physics, and other disciplines. Then, after your read and study all of this, you have to remove yourself from daily ordinary thoughts and really “sit back and think deep lofty thoughts and ideas.” In order to do this, I find you have to get rid of all the daily distractions that interfere with that kind of deep thinking. Hence, go up on the roof.

Let’s look at a couple of those “deep thoughts.” First, the universe is such a vast place that it is virtually impossible for mere mortals to truly comprehend its size. For example, we know that light travels at 186,000 miles/second. And as our sun is 93 million miles from Earth, it takes just over 8 minutes for an electronic communication to get from there to here (or vice versa). Or about 22 minutes to communicate from Earth to Mars. So once we have men on Mars, a simple conversation will be anything but simple. It will take just under an hour to say: “Hello” and “Hello back.”

Now, our galaxy and our solar system within it is so vast. Just the distance from the sun to the planet formerly known as Pluto is over 3 billion miles. Once you are dealing with those large distances, the communication times are less relevant other than understanding you cannot have meaningful conversations, at least as we currently understand them. Then, you add in the fact that there are between 100 billion and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. The closest star is Alpha Centuri – over four light years from our sun. Note: that is (in miles) 186,000 times 60 times 60 times 24 times 365 – or a very, very big number. And that is the closest star. (Note: as all heavenly bodies are gravitationally attracted to each other, if these distances were not so vast, we would have all the stars in our galaxy start to move at very high speed towards each other – resulting in the end of the galaxy.) Instead, we have verified that the universe is expanding at an increasing speed, rather than collapsing due to dark matter and dark energy – a subject for another day.

Now, there are an estimated two trillion solar systems in that part of the universe we can explore (think of that for a second – “that which we can explore” – so we don’t really know how many solar systems are in the universe). And just our own solar system is over 23 trillion miles across. When you try and wrap your mind around these distances, most often your brain “times out.”

Now, if you watch any of the great programs most often on the NatGeo cable channel about our universe (as if there are “other” universes – which some theoretical physicists say is possible) you will see projections of what might happen when two galaxies are attracted to each other such that eventually they “merge.” Instead of a gigantic collision, what would actually happen is they would intersect. However, the distances between solar systems within galaxies are so vast, that most likely none of them would hit each other. Instead, they would bypass each other, go billions of miles past each other, then gravity would cause them to stop and start converging towards each other again. Now, the time for such an event might be hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years.

It is simply too difficult for mere mortals, such as us, to imagine all of this, especially the time it would take – given our very short time here on Earth.

That’s why it is so difficult for us to find our place in the universe. We are just so insignificant. And when we’re sitting “up on the roof” letting our minds “drift into space,” at least I tend to be amazed that we exist at all. As if we got extraordinarily lucky in a gigantic universe-sized crap game.


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