We Might Feel Small, But We're Bigger Than We Ever Thought

>> Thursday, August 23, 2012

So for those who have wondered if I've been bunking off for the past five weeks, the answer is a resounding: "technically". In reality, I spend all that time driving around the grand ol' US of A in a car that's too powerful, on roads that are too big, spending too much money on too much fuel and eating too much junk food, all while having far too much fun. I won't bore you with the minute details about it, because you probably won't care (have you ever actually sat through a slideshow of someone's holiday snaps?), but I will say this: America is HUGE! I mean, for someone who lives in the UK, where you can drive from one extreme end of the country to the other extreme end in about 15 hours, and where the weather across the country is generally the same (normally raining), this was totally alien to me. One part could have a beautiful summer's day while feeling bad for the hurricane decimating the other. One part has an average summer temperature of 8C. The other: Alligators. It just keeps on going! It's not surprising that nearly 2 in 3 Americans don't hold a passport; there's so much stuff to see before you get to either border that it's almost a waste of time to go to someone else's country unless you have to. And while I'm at it, two things we sorely need to transplant from there to here: firstly we need those fuel pumps that clip in place, so in the 21st century I don't need to stand there holding the switch like some sort of primitive caveman, and second, we need free refills on fizzy drinks in restaurants. Seriously, they cost about 6p in overhead per drink to the establishment, so it's not that unreasonable to expect a bit of leeway on it!

Now, I've talked about feeling small before. In fact, I've even included this cool little interactive animation to demonstrate just how small you are. The point of the argument, and the "reasoning" (if that's the best word for it) behind wasting numerous hours designing such a cool little thing would be to demonstrate something to those who feel big comparing themselves to, say, an ant. We're huge compared to an ant, what with our standing upright and our gall-bladders and opposable thumbs, but compared to the Sun, for example, we're so small that it's almost not worth bothering thinking about. This is normally the line of reasoning for those painful seminars about "going for it", hosted by tawdry salesmen who jump about the room telling you with all the enthusiasm of a hippie on amphetamines that you might as well go for the deal, because you're insignificant in the universe. They're technically correct as well; even the most destructive nuclear war we could inflict on our shiny wet planet won't even register on a scale that the universe sits at. As I said, the Earth relative to the Sun is tiny. The Sun looks huge, but remember that it is a smallish star among 100 billion other stars in the Milky Way, which is one of another 100 billion different galaxies. Seriously, my brain genuinely struggles to comprehend this. We truly are tiny, and the jumpy hippy-cum-salesman is correct. However, this is a bit depressing: to think that nothing we do will ever be of any real consequence, as when the Sun dies, the most exquisite piece of artwork ever produced will be destroyed in the same way as the rocks next to it. However, I think our resident drug-using friend has missed something important. Let me explain...

Sure, we're statistically small, but let's look deeper than that. Ok, without getting too science-y, let me start by pointing out that everything in the universe is made of atoms; the building blocks of everything that were made in the first few moments of the Big Bang. The first proper ones were Hydrogen, of exploding balloon fame, that condensed and fused into stars. In there, hydrogen fuses with itself and other atoms to become heavier ones, like oxygen, carbon etc. After burning for billions of years, stars die and explode, showering all this new material into the space around it. These gas clouds eventually gather together and fuse again into new stars, just like before, but with all these new materials as well. Because of this, we start to get rocks. Now, my friends, we can form a solar system just like ours. When the star bursts into life and ignites, it blasts away a lot of the gasses to leave these rocky masses and we get planets, just like ours. These planets eventually stabilise, and now have those new materials that grew from the guts of the previous stars. Materials like Oxygen, Carbon and Nitrogen. The ingredients for life. Somehow, those ingredients came together to become the first organisms and 4 billion years later, tadaa: we have Simon Cowell.

Mr Armpit-trousers aside, my point is that it's not really fair to view ourselves as tiny pointless specs in a gargantuan and indifferent universe. There are two important points to take away here: first, that you are made of exactly the same materials as everything else in the universe. Every part of your body, every carbon atom that is the building block of you, came from the guts of a dying star. Maybe the same star, maybe a combination of many, but the point is the same: you are not looking at the universe, you are part of it, in the same way as an asteroid or a planet or a star or a comet or a distant galaxy is part of the universe and secondly, you are concious. By that, I mean you are self-aware. You know who you are, you know what you are doing, and you can look up at the night sky utterly in awe at the sheer scale and impressiveness of everything, but you're not a separate entity to it all, you are part of it. Your atoms came from those stars. As Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, "you are the universe experiencing itself".

So don't get depressed at our over-enthusiastic host at the boring seminar. You are not just a pointless blob on a blue-green rock hurtling through an average galaxy. You are one and the same,

And I think that's pretty cool, that given enough time, hydrogen will wonder where it came from and where it's going.

images courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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