The universe, which is vast, has taken on new dimensions thanks to unwelcomed discoveries from that meddling Hubble Telescope. Just when I was getting comfortable with my place in the 200 billion galaxy cosmos, the Hubble discovers that it’s 10 times larger than originally thought, thereby making me 10 times smaller – thanks a lot Hubble ass-tronomers. Could you make a guy feel any more insignificant?
A galaxy is defined as a localized cluster of stars numbering between a few hundred million (108) stars to one hundred trillion (1014) stars, each orbiting its galaxy’s center. That’s almost as many stars as Adam saw when he first laid eyes on that forbidden fruit known as Eve. Most galaxies are 3,000 to 300,000 LY (light years) in diameter (about the same diameter as Charles Barkley). Galaxies are separated by distances on the order of millions of light years from each other (about the same emotional distance between Atilla the Hun and his estranged son Caitlyn the Hun). And because our immeasurable inky playpen is so crazily proportioned, I began this little essay with the understatement of the epoch: “The universe, which is vast…”
A 60-year-old 3rd Grader Discusses Light
By definition all discussion about light is illuminating. For example, a light photon is sometimes referred to as a wavicle because it possesses properties of both a wave and an icicle, I mean a particle. It travels at 186,000 miles per second – unless it’s in a construction zone, in which case it slows down to posted speed limits in order to avoid the double penalties. But for the life of me I don’t know why the photon would “play nice” and slow down to avoid a ticket – I mean who’s going to catch it? In theory nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, but I once saw a zebra sprinting at 186,001 miles per second. It’s true. Of course, at the time, the zebra was being chased by a lion doing 186,000 mps. Motivation is where you find it.
But these alphanumeric hieroglyphs I produce with droll ardency cannot touch the absolute enormity of the cosmos. To get some sense of its outlandish proportions one has to approach it with a measure of humor and unorthodox comparisons. For a down to earth, intergalactic comparison (love the mixed metaphor), our Milky Way has a diameter of at least 100,000LY. It is separated from its nearest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, by 2.5 million LY. To put this in perspective, 2.5 million LY is almost as far as PBS’s Rick Steves traveled in 2010. There’s a lot of vacant acreage out there in space just screaming to be developed. Of course no one hears those silent screams because in space there’s only the sound of silence. That might not be totally correct. I think Einstein, Goddard and Elon Musk have all heard the siren call of the eternal cosmic voice – Giuliani, Weinstein and Heinrich Himmler, not so much.
And to add even more non-understandability to these vast measurements, remember that a light year is the distance light, traveling at 186,000 mps (miles per second) journeys in one year. I say again “In a year… at 186,000 miles per second – not miles per hour, but miles per second.” Fast and Furious ain’t got nuthin’ on the speed of light. We should all just stop right here and spend the rest of our natural lives contemplating the speed of light. For example, it takes 8 minutes for the light from the sun to arrive here on earth – 9 minutes if there’s construction.
The Twilight Zone is Real
Imagine, if you will, a plantation owner in Alabama turning on his outdoor light on January 1st and then turning it off on Dec. 31st. During the span of that year, the light from his lawn jockey traveling 24/7 at 186,000 mps is the distance of just one measly old light year or 5.66 trillion statute miles. It’s true what they say, “The universe is vast.” Its immensity is unfathomable (that which cannot be fathomed) and its majesty is ineffable (that which cannot be effed).
Full disclosure: While certain indescribable things are ineffable, other things are completely capable of being effed – take combatting a pandemic for example. Sometimes a cluster of stars gets nastily disorganized leading to a clusterf*ck of stars. This dynamic also works with poorly planned Indian battles (see: Cluster’s Last Stand).
The 2016 Hubble Telescope study predicted a universe with two trillion galaxies based on the idea that there was ten times more interstellar ambient light than the galaxies we’ve so far observed indicate. But the New Horizons endeavor (a 2021 NASA probe lurking past the Kuiper Belt and unaffected by “zodiacal light” residue) only found about twice as much light. This led astronomers to amend their estimate to 800 billion galaxies – a number closer to the pre-Hubble estimate of roughly 200 billion galaxies.
This original 2016 story (which I’ve incorporated into this updated version) is still expanding in its Dave-created Big Bang glow and is testimony to the enduring reliability of employing the scientific method: hypothesize, experiment, analyze and then synthesize – continuously. A healthy reexamination of facts never hurt anyone except the ignorant, who prefer their matrixes unassailed and their boundaries fixed and dilated. But in this case a recalibration of the data yielded a modified conception of our universe. A universe which, in case you didn’t already know, is vast.
In any event, a semi-serious consideration of light being the fastest anything could theoretically travel short of transcending the laws of physics, requires a definition of terms. Light is just the tiny visual swath of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – and the only reason it’s visual (can be seen) is that our organs of sight can perceive and register it. Otherwise it would be like all the other unseen electromagnetic radiation surrounding us in the form of Infrared, Ultra Violet, Gamma rays, radio waves etc. Our useful, but limited organs of vision (eyes) simply can’t perceive theses frequencies. It’s how our species uncomplicates things so we may focus on whatever the hell we’re supposed to be doing here on earth, unencumbered by the full array of EMR entangling us like a ball of yarn. Bear in mind that all these EMR waves travel in their own unique wavelength signature, but at the same speed – you guessed it 186,000 mps. It boggles the mind. Heck, it boggles the game of Boggle.
And that’s all well and good. I can at least rest comfortably with a little working definition of one of the four forces of the universe. So you don’t have to Google it, the 4 inherent forces in the universe are: EMR, gravity, the weak force and the strong force. Since the weak force and the strong force operate at the sub-atomic level we are unaware of them. Suffice to say, without those 2 vital and unsung forces there’d be no Sriracha Sauce, or any life as we know it.
There are many places to slice into this astronomical pie and I choose that area, which to me, has the most oozing, caramelized crust; namely the properties of EMR. For example, I’m ultra-interested in what propels or actuates EMR to such speeds. Why does it “go?” Where did it come from and what is its nature. Is it some kind of cosmic pre-condition? – untreatable, yet harmless. Light or any EMR doesn’t need to ramp up to speed either. It’s always at 186,000 mps whether you’re traveling towards it or away from it (irrespective of your frame of reference). And why, for that matter does it travel in a straight line (when not acted on by gravity or a refractive medium). Why doesn’t it curve or do donuts or order pizza or do something to celebrate the joy ride it’s on. Water and sound waves have sources and impetus. Light waves, not so much, They just go like a bat out of hell and for no reason. Phil Rizzuto once referred to this on a Meatloaf song.
Don’t expect this little literary joy ride I’m on to be especially linear or tantalizing with savory morsels of intellectual food for thought. It’s just me doing donuts and ordering pizza. I don’t know how else to celebrate my consciousness. It’s more of an inner dialogue of catching god with his pants down. Moving on…
Our Politically Correct Universe
Dwarf galaxies are now called “Vertically Challenged” Galaxies and Giant Galaxies are called “Height Augmented” galaxies. I have it on good authority (Neil de Grasse Tyson) that the universe is embarrassed by the way things are turning out. Well, you know what they say, “You get your first 15 billion years to make a first impression, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Galaxies are categorized into 3 main groups based on their appearance or shape.
- Spiral – Our Milky Way is shaped this way. Depressed galaxies are said to be Downward Spiral galaxies.
- Irregular – These galaxies come and go, but when they go, oh boy do they really gotta go.
- Cardi B – The only way to explain this one is that somebody at Cal Tech’s Galaxy Naming Administration lost a bar bet.
As mentioned our known universe of 200 billion galaxies has gotten a fabulous and unexpected makeover courtesy of the meddling Hubble Telescope and NASA’s New Horizons probe. The universe has been freshened-up, re-spacescaped and imbued with greater curb appeal. It’s light years from the way it used to be. Interior designer astronomers (Astro-decorators) have installed some background can lights, knocked down some Magellanic Interstellar Dust and unlocked the vault of heaven to create an “open concept” universe. A few throw pillows in the Orion Constellation here and a couple of shiplap quasars there and voila – suddenly it’s now an 800 billion galaxy universe – 4 times larger than previously known.
Is God even bothering to issue permits anymore or has boundaryless Free Will taken over? The downside of this unexpected refurbishment is that now I’m rattling around in this frigid and cavernous cosmos wondering where my place is in it. Since this unbidden discovery of a vaster universe, I look out at the cosmos and forlornly muse, “I don’t even know you anymore.”
Most of the Section Below was Written in 2016 When the Universe and I Were Young, Naïve…and Vast
Although we live in an expanding universe, I sometimes prefer the tidiness of a static universe. I crave a reliable place with a finite number of galaxies operating with exacting Newtonian mechanics instead of the confounding Einsteinian sorcery were immersed in. My shining universe on a hill is a place where video solitaire can tranquilize an entire nation and live streaming can mean different things; depending on if you’re screening a Shriner’s Parade on Facebook or opening a box of Depends. Why are we born wholly unaware of both the universe’s enormity and Charles Barkley’s immensity?
I was close. I had almost wrapped my mind around the 200 billion known galaxies. I was just starting to incorporate that unfathomable number into my cerebral architecture until the cosmic rug was pulled out from under me – similarly to the moment when it was revealed Darth Vader was actually Luke’s father. My revelation that the universe had increased 10-fold (later down ticked to 4-fold) was the opposite of an Aha! moment. It was more of an Oh, sh*t! moment. I mean sure I’ll have more places to put stuff, but now I need more stuff to put places. In actuality though, I’m the one who needs to be put in his place – very confusing. Thanks a lot Hubble telescope. Sometimes being wholly unaware is a comforting option.
This Story Continues to Expand, 4 Times its Original Size. As Above, So Below.
Galaxies range in size from Dwarf Galaxies, with a paltry few billion stars, to Giant Galaxies with a stout one hundred trillion stars. But to balloon from 200 billion galaxies (unfathomable) to 2 trillion galaxies (incomprehensible) is well…imponderable. With the sheer number of stars in the universe and the probability that life is superabundant, the question then becomes not “Are we alone in the universe?” but “Can a guy get some cave time? Jesus, you can’t swing a cat around here without knocking into something.”
Just to put this outsized order of magnitude into some perspective; 2 trillion is like taking all the Starbucks in Manhattan and closing half of them. That’s how many galaxies would be left. 2 trillion looks like this: 2,000,000,000,000 or 2 X 1012 or the number of e coli in 1 inch of large intestine. It’s impossible to convey the enormity of this number unless you’ve had course work in calculus or a recent colonoscopy.
There’s No Place Like Home (Our Cozy Little 100 Million Light Year Diameter Galaxy)
Our little slice of heaven (the Milky Way) is a solid working-class star cluster conveniently located near Ort Clouds, interstellar gases and an abundance of Dark Matter. One camp of astrophysicists however, looks disapprovingly at all this loosely affiliated Dark Matter and has downgraded our galaxy to ghetto status. But I disagree and maintain that Dark Matter matters. Do you realize that if the Milky Way Galaxy were clustered with more peanuts it would be known as the Snickers Galaxy? Then again if the Milky Way galaxy had all its caramel lipo-sucked out of it, it would become the 3 Musketeers Galaxy – such sweet sorrow. It’s like living in Candyland. So we begin to see just how silly and sweet the universe can be. That it is able to be reshaped this way defies Newtonian physics and lends credence to the Cosmic Joke. A joke whose deepest expression can be found in the words: “Can you hear me know?”
For Sale by Owner
If the Milky Way were a parcel of real estate for sale, its Info Sheet might look like this:
The Milky Way Galaxy
Just come to market, this spacious 5 trillion-starred Galaxy was formed only 10 billion years ago by the grace of our usual contractor – The Almighty – who brought it in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Price: If you have to ask…
GOA Fees (Galaxy Owners Association Fees): 250 Quatloos monthly
This sturdy, spiral-shaped galaxy features:
- Over 93 X 10120,000,000 square feet of usable living area. Plus a dog run for Sirius (serious).
- Almost 384,000 parsecs of Vacuum Sanctuaries set aside for New Age terrestrials to enjoy the unspoiled serenity of massive black voids.
- ADA compliant with mandated accommodations for dwarf stars, low-esteem planetoids and orphaned satellites. There’s even a padded orbital path for eccentric comets.
- Port-a-Potty rest stops thoughtfully placed throughout the galaxy about every 3 light years.
- 42% of our planets receive precipitation – some of it is even water. This climatic condition lowers insurance rates and eliminates the requirement for fire suppression systems.
- All our Black Hole Communities are gated to prevent a slow-traveling passerby from getting sucked into a wormhole.
- Take a Load Off: Half-gravity planets available to lighten the burdens of the overweight.
- Upgrades feature most of the 118 elements in the Periodic Table; including all the heavy elements, the noble gases and some not-so-noble gases. Plenty of Glade Air Freshener is recommended to deal with those not-so-noble-gases.
Financing, as always, is available for those who have plenty of money. For those who actually need financing, we suggest you take your less than stellar balance sheet to the Andromeda Galaxy where you can buy a lovely starter asteroid at an affordable price.
Taxes are due every quarter light year. Late fee penalties involve recalibrating your planet’s orbit to render it more eccentric so it’s uncomfortably warm in summer and unbearably cold in winter. That is, until you pay up.
The Milky Way Galaxy – If you lived here you’d be home already.
This is Not My Beautiful House
As I survey the heavens and factor in a universe now 10 times vaster than previously thought, I‘m struck by a contradictory epiphany. Rather than relegating myself to a microscopic, soul-killing insignificance set against a limitless universe, I instead recognize myself as an integral piece to an even bigger puzzle. Puzzling indeed. The universe just got big, so I got bigger too. Heartening really.
Extra-terrestrials may have already gotten wind of human life by virtue of all those errant plastic grocery bags the solar wind has been blowing all over the universe. Many bottle-nosed aliens have suffered greatly from this scourge. Other aliens are aware of our existence but are ignoring us because they are simply content just to remain silent and steal our streaming services – especially since Game of Thrones became so popular.
Enough with the Distractions
Having one’s head in the clouds, daydreaming about Lamborghinis and iPhones is one thing. But finding our consciousness “at one” with the universe is quite another. We don’t want our heart surgeon, in the midst of a transplant, to suddenly set down their sutures and exclaim, “Wow these infra-red rays…they just pass right through you…it’s so beautiful.” Humans need limitations to function well. If we could easily access the majesty of the universe, nothing would get done. We’d just be a bunch of stoners sitting around in awe of the real Wi-Fi that connects us all. And let’s not fool ourselves. If the male population could tune into the electromagnetic spectrum and acquire x-ray vision, women would have to wear lead clothing to avoid being gawked at?
If you’re like me (no hair on your ankles from years of athletic sock-wearing) you’ve grown weary of concepts that are unfathomable. 2 trillion galaxies are unfathomable. God is unfathomable. Kanye West’s popularity is unfathomable. What does unfathomable even mean – That which cannot be fathomed? I like things that are fathomable; so that when I go out fathoming, I’m able to bring to the surface an understandable conclusion instead of a fish-out-of-water idea that seems hell bent on flip-flopping its way back into the water where it’s content to submerge and shield its divine essence from the truth-starved masses living in a universe now 10 times larger than previously believed (catches breath). Tell me you’re still with me on this one. And if you are, please get back to me to explain it. Thanks.
Way Too Preachy – Preachy Keen
In my world (the one with high-sheen ankles) all topics, concepts and ideas would be fathomable; and freely fathoming them would be the right of everyone – even if they have Fluffernutter in their pantry like it was edible or something. Irrespective of your station in life, successful fathoming should be an entitlement. As it stands now, the lack of successful fathoming has spawned religions to explain that which is not immediately apparent. So these ancient guys in long robes and calligraphic scrolls surrounded indescribable spiritual ideas with stained glass and hard bench seats. And then cathedrals with leaky roofs were built so that a continuous fund drive was always needed to waterproof them. Soon the robes got spiffy collars and mitered hats and truths were preached to eager masses looking for solace from a frightful world which during those Dark Ages included stoning, smiting and something called porridge.
You can’t go 2 weeks on your computer without having your operating system forcibly updated to keep you modernized, efficient and protected and yet we can go thousands of years without updating the tenets of religions created in the time before dentistry. Of course some of these ideas are universal truths and need no updating – they just need dissemination and practice. At least this is what I’ve learned from listening to various gurus on YouTube.
No amount of written posturing, descriptors or ideas can grip the unknowable and mysterious perch we call consciousness. I know that and revel in it. Meanwhile if you’re looking for me, I’ll be out in the parking lot doing pizzas and ordering donuts. Check that, doing donuts and ordering pizza. Love this app called Life. I didn’t even download it and I find myself playing it.