Monday, August 21, 2017

Some Reality For You

A great shot of the total eclipse, taken at the Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience on August 21, 2017 in Madras, Oregon. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Today, we got to enjoy a little dose of reality, courtesy of a solar eclipse that spanned the breadth of the United States. Most of the things in your and my life are, like it or not, temporary. Even ourselves. We get a little while to be alive, and then at some point, we're not here anymore. Where do you go after you die? Well, where were you before you were born? I don't have all the answers, but I do know that most of the things in our lives that cause of considerable stress are actually very small blips on the radar, barely registering in the grand scheme of larger things. I'm not saying those things -- presidents, music, love, food, sex, cats, kids, cheese, and so on -- aren't important. I am saying that if you zoom the camera of existence out aways, the relative amount of importance you give them is perhaps smaller than if you view them from a different perspective.

We're On a Rock In a Bubble In Space
That's where we all live. Everyone who ever was, as far as we know for sure, has only lived on this rock. Very few people have left the rock, and even then, only for a short while. Despite all the great episodes of Star Trek and so on, we have zero proof that there is any life in the entire seemingly infinite universe other than the people and birds and trees and platypuses and mushrooms and so on that share space on this rock. We'd like to think we're not alone in the universe, but until we have direct evidence otherwise, that's how it is.

This rock in space, with its thin layer of atmosphere, is the only place where we know life exists. Seems like a nice place. Photo: NASA

Space Is Too Big For You To Understand
Let's say you have a fast car. It's a Bugatti Veyron. It's crazy fast; you can drive it 250 miles per hour. That seems insane. So, you get in your Bugatti, and you head to the moon (ignoring things like gravity, escape velocity, and other things that make my silly discussion impossible). Going full speed the whole way, it's going to take you 42 days to get to the moon. That's a long road trip. But let's look at some longer distances.

• To get to the sun, it will take 16,000 days (about 44 years)
• To get to Jupiter, it will take 167 years.
• To get to the nearest star other than our own - Alpha Centauri - it takes light itself 4.2 years. In your Space Bugatti going full speed, it's going to take almost 11,000,000 years.

11 million years, to get to a small and seemingly insignificant star. How long is that in terms that relate to you?

We live on a planet, the third one from the star in our solar system. That system has a bunch of neighbors in a galaxy called the Milky Way. That galaxy is part of a group of galaxies, and the group is part of a supercluster of galaxies, and that makes up one small chunk of the universe, which (by the way) is so big that some parts of it will be forever unknown to us because light and other information will simply never have the time to reach us. Feel small yet?

There's Lots of Time... Just Not for You
Humans now live longer than they ever have before. Worldwide, humans live for about 79 years now. That's amazing! Just a few hundred years ago, it was rare for someone to reach their 50th birthday. Good for us and our long lives!

But let's get back to that 11,000,000-year trip to the nearest star in our space car. 11 million years ago, do you know what we were doing? Not much; we didn't exist. Humans have only been in our current anatomical form as Homo sapiens for the last 200-250,000 years or so; less than a quarter of one million years. Hominids -- the family of great apes of which we are members -- only came into existence some 15 million years ago. It was only less than six million years ago that we split away from the group who are now chimpanzees, our closest living non-human relatives here on Earth.

But those are still tiny chunks of time in a grand scheme of things. The universe itself seems to be about 13.82 billion years old. Earth and our surrounding solar system have been around for 4.6 billion years. And yet, by current projections, the whole kit and caboodle has only just begun. The future of an expanding universe says that stars will stop forming 100 trillion years from now, and things go on from there for quite awhile. Wikipedia has a nice graphical timeline of the universe, if you're interested.

What it will tell you is that your life -- and in fact, the existence of our entire species, start to finish -- is barely discernible at such scales. You, and your existence, has almost zero level of relevance to the universe.

Why Bother Doing Anything, Then?
Everything is a matter of scale, from the tiniest particles of atoms that everything is made from, to the vast amount of space and time that make up the universe in which we live. The life you have is what it is, and it's all we have. That means that while you might not matter much to the universe, you matter a whole lot to you! You also matter to the people and things around you, who share this little chunk of time together.

In my opinion, you (and me and a cat and a tree) all have value of some kind. Make the most of the time you have, and make life better for those around you. You very well might only have this brief slide of time that we call life, so make it count.

How do you spend your brief time on this little space rock? Learning and teaching. Laughing and crying. Making life better for people and animals and plants around you, and continuing to grow as an individual and as a species. One way or the other, there's little reason not to enjoy yourself, so make sure you do.

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