Friday, December 16, 2005

"Billions and billions ... "

Most of us have heard the late Carl Sagan refer to "billions and billions" of stars in the Universe. But Carl's been gone awhile now, and the astronomers are still at work. So just how many do folks estimate? How about 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The figure -- 7 followed by 22 zeros or, more succinctly, 70 sextillion -- was calculated by a team of stargazers based at the Australian National University, according to a 2003 report by CNN.

Now, we know a billion is a large number, and therefore "billions and billions" is really a lot of stars. But do you have any idea how many 70 sextillion is? Can you even imagine it? Try this "fun fact" from the same article: "It's also about 10 times as many stars as grains of sand on all the world's beaches and deserts." Say what?

So for every single grain of sand that get's stuck to your bathing suit and that you summarily wash down the beach shower, there are 10 stars in the universe. Perhaps that helps you appreciate the unfathomable vastness of the observable universe -- beyond that, who knows?

I thought perhaps you might also appreciate some of these quotes by Carl Sagan, which I stumbled across while doing a little web-digging (yes, for you, faithful blog reader ;-):

We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering. -- Carl Sagan, quoted in Dan Lewandowski and John Stear, "A Tribute To Carl Sagan"

Look again at that dot [referring to planet Earth]. 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. -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

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. -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

In our tenure on this planet we have accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, hereditary propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders and hostility to outsiders, which place our survival in some question. But we have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and our children's children, a desire to learn from history, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our vision and understanding and prospects are bound exclusively to the Earth — or, worse, to one small part of it. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. -- Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 318

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides. -- Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions, p. 215

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