How Big is the Milky Way?
The picture and the article linked above, as well as the video below, were created by people much smarter than I – so feel free to skip the rambling of this madman if you don’t have too much time. But reading/writing this post is/was fun for me, because it makes me feel enormous, and microscopic at the same time – and suddenly my day is more interesting, and hopefully more meaningful. I hope that this post can challenge/bless you, as these things do me.
I have had this thought for several years now, and as often well intended people try to impress me (not just me) with big gargantuan measurements and calculations about how things are and will be I try to repeatedly remind myself that not only am I not grasping this, but the person “blowing my mind” doesn’t understand what they are saying either. Please don’t take that statement as a condemnation of people trying to know things, I think that trying to know things is wonderful, but actually knowing and understanding many things might be harder than we tend to think. It seems to me that the ideas in our brains reach a critical mass that we don’t seem capable of truly understanding, at least not in the terms in which we tend to think that we can understand them.
The Arabic Numeral System (the one that we use that goes from 0 to 9, and then repeats it’s self) is a brilliant design that allows us to use our nostalgic brains to consider and relate quantities in relation to the number 10. 10 versus 100 is relatively simple for people to understand. One hundred is ten ten’s. Wasn’t it weird that I switched from the numbers to the letters? It was for me. Anyway, the point is that these numbers that we use repeatedly to quantify different things or ideas often to compare to one another can be great for our brains on a relatively small scale. I mean, I can count to 10 and then 100 relatively quickly, and I think that I get the difference in terms of consequence from one rather than the other. Say I have $100, rather than $10, I understand how much stuff I can get for that money. And I’m sorry if this feels silly, I’m trying to get to the point, I just think that it’s important to consider understanding the ACTUAL difference in these amounts.
Ok, now let’s keep with talking about money, because it’s way more interesting than most things that you might try to quantify because you can get stuff with it. I know that I think that I can understand the numbers 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000, and the scale of both in comparison to one another. However, I’ve come to believe that this is just my ego and some basic comparison skills thanks to the Arabic Numeral System, and that I actually don’t get the comparison (and I don’t think that you probably do either). I am not saying that we can’t use the ideas of these numbers to compute and calculate, i just mean that i believe that our brains cannot full grasp the scale and impact of these kinds of numbers. I don’t mean to offend you if you think that you can and do fully understand these larger numbers, but I’m just being honest. Here are a few little tests to see how you feel about what I’m talking about, and again we’ll stick to money.
In this last Presidential election Sheldon Adelson was in the news for donating $10 million dollars several times to different campaigns. In the end he paid over $100 million to super pacs in the 2012 election. Now, that is simply a lot of money, but lets consider his net wealth really quickly. Mr. Adelson is worth roughly $25 billion, so as a percentage of his wealth his donations were about .4% of what he had to offer. In other words, if Mr. Adelson had $25,000 in the bank he offered $10 ten different times. Having that kind of influence for such a small portion of your wealth is a pretty wild thing, even though all of his candidates eventually lost. Ok, let’s try another example.
How long does it take you to run a mile? And there are 5,280 feet in a mile. Look at something that’s about a foot, and then count to 5,280. Ok, you don’t have to do that, but try to picture how big a mile is to you. Well in 1 second light goes 186,000 miles (imagine getting that many dollars in one second). And don’t forget those are miles, not feet. Light is so fast… I mean, in one second light could go across the united states about 60 times. Are you getting this? Me neither. We are talking about light in one second.
Alright, so as light travels 186,000 miles (not feet!) per second if you do the math light travels about 5.8 trillion miles in a year. I mean, 5,800,000,000,000. Or 5.8 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100 x 100. Surely you understand that, I used 100’s. Ok, I’m kidding because you can’t, and I can’t either. But there is the connection, if we try to break things down so that we can understand them then we just use a bunch of 100’s, and thus 5.8 trillion no longer feels so big. I mean, imagine going across the United States in a car. Now imagine doing it sixty times… Now imagine doing that every second of the day for 365 days…. I know, you can’t, neither can I. But that number is about 5.8 trillion…
Our national debt is about $17 trillion. That’s three times as many dollars in our debt as there are miles in a light year. And this isn’t just about debt, it’s about profits that reflect wealthy disparity that we can’t comprehend.
We live in a society with businesses and government which enact policies and creates profits that measure up to this scale – and we are then asked to vote with our ballots and wallets as if we understand what we are doing… I don’t mean to be a glum, but we really can’t… So, with that in mind it might be helpful when listening to people who seem to be trying to sell you a bill of goods so that you can acknowledge your own very necessary skepticism. This doesn’t mean that we can’t compute, test, and challenge ideas (we can), but when the scale is so large you might ask yourself why. Could it be so that those who maybe should be outraged wont know to be? I’m not sure, but it’s hard not to consider all of our worlds inflationary parts without thinking that it might be sick.