A Weighty Problem!
We all know how tall we are, how much we weigh and how many years have passed since our birth. We also know, with only slightly less accuracy, the relative distances between our homes, the local shopping mall or even the length of our daily walk route. We “measure” every day, either consciously or subconsciously.
I’m sure if I were to ask you to give me the approximate distance of, say, a length of chalk from one end to the other, found in every classroom of a neighbourhood school, you would likely make a very good guess. Four inches (or 10 centimetres for the metric-minded) wouldn’t be far off the mark.
However, if I were to grind up that same piece of chalk in a blender and lay each individual particle end to end, one inch between, could you then answer the same question? How far would it stretch? Across the ledge of the blackboard, the perimeter of the classroom, around the schoolyard? Further? No reader of this article could immediately know. Nevertheless, the answer is calculable.
Take an average homemade apple pie (my personal favourite) and cut it in half. Next, take one of the two remaining pieces and cut this in half. Forging ahead, how many cuts are required before it is reduced to one single atom? As it turns out, the answer to this particular question is about 90 cuts – assuming, of course, you could find a knife sufficiently sharp to make that 90th cut, and maintain accuracy along the way!
I have answered this question for you and now you, in turn, can either fax or e-mail me the answer to the chalk riddle. Hey, but let’s not stop here! Grinding up the chalk only alters its shape. If each individual atom were able, it would still “think and feel” as a chalk atom. The total sum of its universe has been that one lowly stick of chalk. The same could be said for the apple pie atom. Its universe is the pie as a whole, of which it is an infinitely small but integral part.
Now I ask you (while apologizing for ending a sentence with a preposition): “Just what are you a part of?” Certainly neither the piece of chalk nor the apple pie! After all, if the pie and chalk atoms could speak they would each tell you that they are, respectively, part of the chalk and apple pie universes, and there exists nothing more. End of story, at least their story! Yet we know, as “outside observers,” that their worlds are really only a very minute part of the real universe. But, and as Billy Shakespeare once so aptly put it, “There’s the rub!” What is this real universe, far removed from those of the apple pie and chalk, and how do we as Earthlings measure up alongside it?
Since most of us prefer to eat apple pie rather than chalk (although I do have some unusual friends), we will continue to use the tastier pie as a metaphor for our universe and see if we can build up some understandable perspectives. Most of us know the size of our Earth and its natural satellite our orbiting moon and the mean distance between, but if I ask you this question: “On a clear night, far removed from the interference of city lights, how many stars can you see?” Could you snap out a quick reply?
Before you attempt to answer (and “many” is not acceptable), I will tell you that the question is, in itself, absurd. Consider first that many of the stars you think you see are, in reality, galaxies … other “apple pies,” if you will.” So what?” ... might be your response. “A galaxy, after all, contains only a few hundred or so stars! Big deal!” Ah ... but not so. Don’t leave yet! Bear with me while I provide you with some astounding scientifically known facts about our own “apple pie” galaxy.
Our sun with its nine planets, and a great asteroid belt to boot, is only one average size star of approximately ½ trillion stars in our galaxy the Milky Way System. We live within the outer swirling arm of a very run-of-the-mill average galaxy comprised of an enormous cluster of random “suns” racing as a whole through the Cosmos, many of which with their own family of planets. Our next nearest cousin galaxy is the Andromeda Nebula, about 2 million light years from Earth (light travelling at 300,000 kms. every second for two million years!).
For those fortunate “snowbirds” among us, the next time you are pushing your toes through the warm sand on your favourite beach in Florida, reach down and collect a handful of this fine silica. Contain it, heft it, gauge it, and then try to guess how many grains you scooped up from that briny beach in those more desirable southern climes. No easy task, right? Scientists have calculated that you would hold in your palm, 10,000 grains, give or take. Knowing this, and for reasons of comparison, you should also know that there are more stars in the Cosmos than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of our planet Earth. Your brain may need a little time to absorb that incredible tidbit of celestial information.
Thus far, astronomers have discovered about 100 billion galaxies. Bear in mind that our very own Milky Way galaxy and our closest neighbour the Andromeda Nebula are scant more than average Joe’s among them. Knowing all this, and perhaps most mind-boggling of all is that our universe with all of its zillions of “bulky” galaxies, stars, asteroid belts and mysterious “black holes,” is mostly a boundless, timeless curving void. If we were randomly plunked into the cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves anywhere near or on another planet or star would be less than one in a billion trillion, trillion (that’s one followed by 33 zeroes!).
Individually, we Earthlings live out our lives as a tiny, worrisome, reasoning mote: An ephemeral “blip” on the screen of life. Top of the heap among living organisms, we spend much of our waking hours privately scheming and conniving to survive our own inevitable and eventual demise. From the time of our earliest ancestors, the more intellectually curious among us have contemplated life, death, the sun, stars and worshipped much of that for which we could find no reasonable answers. We have stood in awe gazing out at an incomprehensibly vast universe, and have wondered if the deeper, more profound answers to our own existence lay far beyond the furthermost reaches of space.
For clues, perhaps we could magically question the atom trapped within the apple pie universe about the extent of its universe. Or, consult the sub-microscopic world within one lowly crumb of that chalk we pulverized. Universes within universes! And all of us – from the amoebas at the low end of the evolutionary scale to the “Einstein’s” among our human race – are the very stuff of stars! Where does it all begin and where does it all end? Science is in quest of some, at least, of the “answerable” answers.
As for our own and known personal measurements and dimensions like our weight, well, hmm … now that’s a “universal” conundrum on a different level to be revealed only to another branch of scientists: our family physician.
Meanwhile, I’m having apple pie. Pass the ice cream and scrub the chalk.
– Warren W. Evans –