Let’s start with the vastness of how incredibly big the universe is, like indescribably impossibly, unimaginably big. I’ve written about how our brains lose scale the bigger and more unrelateable the numbers get. But also, if you go the other way, things get unrelateably small. We think we can conceive of how small an atom is, but it’s way smaller than you imagine… and the building blocks that make up the nucleai of atoms… protons, neutrons…and other sub-atomic particles… way smaller… and quarks beneath that… it’s a long way down, all the way to the down to the Planck length… which is the scale at which classical ideas about gravity and space-time cease to be valid, and quantum effects take over. This is the “quantum of length”, the smallest measurement of length that has any meaning. It is roughly equal to 1.6 x 10^-35 m or about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000th the size of a proton.
It is estimated that the diameter of the observable universe is about 28.5 gigaparsecs (93 billion light-years, or 8.8×10^23 kilometres or, well, let’s spell it out… 550,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles), putting the edge of the observable universe about 46.5 billion light-years away.
If you look at the numbers in metric… I’m going to normalize these things to a unit we’ll define as a tenth of a millimetre… let’s call that unit… I dunno… a Kovid.
Why that particular length? Because it’s the mid-point between the biggest and smallest things in the universe. The universe itself is 8.8×10^31 Kovids wide… while the Planck length is 1.6 x 10^31 Kovids… which means the width of a human hair is the half-way point in size. Take the width of the universe… average it with the smallest width we can measure… and you get the width a human hair. It blows your mind no matter which direction you approach it from. We, here, in our 3D existence, are right in the middle of a scale that’s vastly incomprehensible, no matter how you view it.
This is the sort of coincidence that either means a lot, or means nothing… sort of like how if you observe the cosmos, you will notice that everything is moving away from us. Like, if there was a Big Bang, visualized as an explosion from a central location, we are right in the middle. That sounds profoundly meaningful until you realize that the Big Bang was not that sort of explosion… it was an explosion of time and space, and it’s expanding uniformly everywhere… like, everywhere in the universe looks like the middle of it, because everything seems to be moving away from it.
Interesting duality with both of those things, depending on how you look at it… either we, humanity, is really incredibly important in the grand scheme of things… or we’re an insignificant, irrelevant part of the bigger picture. It’s probably a bit of both, again… depending how you view it.
All of this came to mind this morning while watching a rocket launch — the first manned launch for SpaceX and their Falcon 9 rocket. It’s fantastic to see the new technology, which, if you’ve been following the evolution of SpaceX, is a slow and steady progression of very impressive engineering. I am in awe of these guys being able to take the exhausted first stage of a rocket, and recover it perfectly, landing it on a ship that’s waiting for it in the precise spot. And the space capsule itself, all operated from touch panels… no endless maze of confusing knobs and switches. It’s crazily impressive what mankind can do when it puts its mind to it.
It’s also tragically horrifying what mankind can do, as evidenced by the events that triggered the present evolving meltdown in the U.S. We make such progress on one hand, and it’s like we haven’t evolved from barbaric cavemen in others. Rocket fuel burns, taking mankind literally upwards, on a 19 hour journey to another technological marvel, the International Space Station… while on the ground, cities burn in protest and recognition of just how far other parts of society need to evolve. The vast spectrum between those two things seems as vast as my Kovid scale.
Shoutout to the two astronauts, Bob and Doug (how’s it going, eh…), and may they have a safe journey to the ISS — and back. And it’s interesting… for those guys, when they look out the window, they can see it all… the entire earth below them. The place where everything that’s ever happened… entirely in their field of view. How small we all are in the grand scheme of things, but at our scale, how large and important things seem. I bet if we could all see that view — take a huge step back… or, up, really… 400km up to the ISS… and look down, I wonder if we’d realize that we are all very much the same.
It’s suggested that everyone, especially when they’re young, go somewhere… else. Like, vastly different. There are plenty of places that need schools built and fresh-water wells dug and English classes taught… they need the help, and some people around here need a vastly different perspective. You certainly appreciate what you have here and what you take for granted when you see things through a different lens. I’d like to think that in the future, space travel will be so accessible that everyone might have the opportunity to at least spend a few hours in orbit, looking down. The grade-12 trip won’t be 2 weeks in Guatemala… it’ll be a trip to a launchpad, and then upwards… far.
Perhaps a few laps of the planet would make people realize that from up there, there are no visible borders and that the people below, whose cultures and skin colours can’t be seen from so far above, must also all be part of the same big picture. And maybe that’ll lead to less people being murdered, asphyxiated with knees to their necks. Or less people playing victim and trying to get someone arrested (or worse) because they’re offended at being told to leash their dogs.
Look at this godforsaken virus. It’s doesn’t care. It doesn’t differentiate. White people in Italy, Black people in New York, Asian people in China. It’ll infect and kill us all indiscriminately. But you can’t blame it. It has no brain, no consciousness, no empathy, no compassion. We humans have all of that, and if we can use it to advance humanity the way today’s launch implies, we can certainly use it to fix the rampant and evident ongoing societal inequalities that persist.