Anyone who has spent time around science fiction has heard something of the scale of the universe but science fiction tends to make the universe feel smaller, not larger. This isn’t so much a failing of science fiction as an acceptance of the impossibility of the human mind to truly grasp the size of the universe.
My favorite description of the size of space is Douglas Adams. “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drug store, but that's just peanuts to space.” He goes on as Douglas Adams is known to do.
Later in the story he introduces the most terrible torture in the universe, the Total Perspective Vortex, which turns out to be a full understanding of the enormity of creation with a tiny microscopic dot that says “You are here”, this knowledge destroys a person’s mind, proving that no one can afford to have a sense of perspective. It is of course a joke, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
What drew my mind to this recently was the Galaxy Zoo. http://www.galaxyzoo.org/ which is a fantastic project in which you look at pictures of galaxies and determine if they are spiral, elliptical, or merging. It’s relatively simple to tell in most of the pictures, so why do they need me? Simple enough, there are millions of galaxies which need categorized.
Keeping in mind that each of those galaxies has approximately a hundred billion stars scale again begins to come into play as I click through the beautiful pictures you can help but think about how the idea of life in those galaxies.
I don’t know the exact quote so I’ll paraphrase, if there is life on other worlds that would be the most exciting discovery in human history, but if there isn’t then that is even more amazing.
Think about this, if there are millions and millions of galaxies with billions of stars on every one and as it appear from our local studies planets around most of those stars that means there could be trillions of planets similar to earth. Now think about that many world with nothing on them.
Try this, imagine you have a powerful telescope and you look in the most seemingly empty part of space, then you zoom in on the part of that that is most empty and you keep doing that till you are
To go at this in a different direction I want to put down some science fiction stories which got the scale of the universe horribly, horribly wrong.
Star Trek – I have no problem with warp speed or going from world to world, that is simply what is needed for the show to work. I personally think the worst example of misunderstanding the scale of the universe is the galactic barrier.
This is literally a barrier which surrounds the galaxy. Now if we can assume that the enterprise isn’t so stupid that they didn’t notice that they could just go over it, it has to be a bubble. The galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across and 16,000 light years deep, with doing any math I’d have to say that means that the galactic barrier would have to be bigger than that, or really, really big.
Star Wars—space battles have to be small because otherwise they would be boring and if asteroid belts were really as spread out as they should be there wouldn’t be any point in having one.I’m only bothered by the fact that it seems that in the galaxy wide empire there appears to be only about 8 planets. Yoda knew Chewbacca? Anakin built C3P0? Why in a universe with 100 billion stars do we go back to the same planets? What are the odds that a brother and sister separated would find each other?
Some of this is storytelling but it does make the Star Wars galaxy feel about the same size as the town I live in.
Galaxies and Solar Systems – Not the same thing
You might think I’m nitpicking but this happens a lot. People think they are being smart I suppose or they just like the word galaxy better. Let me make this clear. A solar system is a single star and its planets, a galaxy is 100 billion stars. Using them as the same thing is absurd. You might as well just call it a hamburger instead of a galaxy because it’s nearly as accurate.
Again, check out Galaxy Zoo and help categorize the universe. Once we get done with the galaxies I say we start on the stars. There are a few trillion of them so that should keep us busy at least until 2013 when the earth ends.