Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is There Anybody Out There?

Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy Oliver Stein 

There will be a total lunar eclipse this week that almost the entirety of North America will be in a position to see. I'm undecided if I'm going to drag by butt out of bed to watch it because there's another one coming on October 8th and I'll have access to a telescope/camera combination then. At any rate, it got me thinking about how fortunate we are to have developed into these fabulous creatures that can ask questions, learn about our world (and the worlds beyond), understand and share information, ask more questions, become inspired, inspire others... and create.

It's those last three items on the list that more often than not have me feeling that we, as a planet, have just won the Powerball lottery. The first five numbers gave us life. An extraordinary planet that spins and floats around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy in a random corner of the Universe. The sixth number, the Powerball number, gave us the self awareness and intelligence to appreciate it all. Whether or not you believe that All Of This was created by the hand of God or we just happened to win the greatest cosmic lottery of all time, one thing is certain: it is absolutely awe inspiring.

Image from Wikimedia Commons courtesy NASA

The iconic photograph above was taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spaceprobe at a distance of 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles). It depicts the Earth as a mere 0.12 pixel in size and the photograph is aptly titled "The Pale Blue Dot". It was taken at the request of Carl Sagan as part of a "Family Portrait" - a collection of photographs of some the planets in our Solar System as taken by Voyager. In his 1994 book, "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space", Carl used some amazingly profound words to describe what he saw:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Sagan had a way with words, didn't he? I keep that photograph along with the first paragraph of his description on my phone and every time I need a little perspective I take a look at it and read the text. The copy of the picture I have has a little arrow pointing to Earth with the comment "You Are Here".

The human brain has a hard time working with things that are on a scale much larger or much smaller than what we experience on a day-to-day basis. Until you see the entirety of your existence as a dot on a screen I don't think it's an easy thing for people to grasp just how small we are, and just how absolutely huge everything else is. Fortunately, there are some very creative people who have come up with some nifty tools that help us out in this regard.

You could easily spend days playing around with these, so be careful. You have been warned!

If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel - Josh Worth
This is the best example I have ever seen which highlights the true massiveness of the universe. The concept is simple: if the moon were 1 pixel in size on your computer screen how big would everything else be, and more importantly, how far away would everything else be? You use the scrollbar on the bottom and you travel to the right through our solar system starting with the Sun and working your way out to Pluto. Along the way the creator of this site puts witty commentary in the voids between all the planets so if you jump back and forth instead of scrolling you will miss some good stuff. As he says around the 117,350,945 km mark, "Most of space is just space."

100,000 Stars - Chrome Experiments (Chrome browser only)
From the '?' link on the page:
"100,000 Stars is an interactive visualization of the stellar neighborhood created for the Google Chrome web browser. It shows the location of 119,617 nearby stars derived from multiple sources, including the 1989 Hipparcos mission. Zooming in reveals 87 individually identified stars and our solar system. The galaxy view is an artist's rendition based on NGC 1232, a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.

Instructions: Pan using your mouse and zoom in/out using your touchpad or mouse wheel. Click a star’s name to learn more about it.

Warning: Scientific accuracy is not guaranteed. Please do not use this visualization for interstellar navigation."

Cosmos - ChronoZoom
This is one link where you can get lost for a long while and I'd recommend it for everyone who has ever wondered about the concept of time, as well as every science teacher out there. The site allows you to zoom in and learn about the Universe in terms of time. You start with the Universe at it's beginning - more than 12 billion years ago and you can scroll, zoom, and click your way through time. As you will see, humans exist in just a fraction of a fraction of the whole thing. Here's a link that should take you right to "Humanity". Use your scroll wheel to zoom out and you'll get a good sense really quickly exactly how far we've come in such a short amount of time. Alternatively, click the main link I provided in the header and when you arrive at the site click the word "Humanity" at the top.

Finally, even though this song finishes with a solar eclipse and not a lunar one I think it's still appropriate to end this post with one of my favourite Pink Floyd tunes. The songs "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" come off the album Dark Side of the Moon (easily in my top 5 albums of all time) and features a very Sagan-esque set of lyrics:
All that you touch and all that you see
all that you taste, all you feel
and all that you love and all that you hate
all you distrust, all you save
and all that you give and all that you deal
and all that you buy, beg, borrow or steal
and all you create and all you destroy
and all that you do and all that you say
and all that you eat and everyone you meet
and all that you slight and everyone you fight
and all that is now and all that is gone
and all that's to come and everything under the sun is in tune
but the sun is eclipsed by the moon




~ Andrew

No comments:

Post a Comment

I am addicted to blog comments, so please support by habit and leave me one. I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts and I will always reply. If for some reason Blogger is giving you grief and you can't leave a comment you can always reach me at potatochipmath@gmail.com