Warning: the following information causes different reactions in people. You may experience anything from awe, fascination, spiritual inspiration, depression, loneliness, and/or a hunger for more information! My intent in this post is to help people picture what "m/b/trillions of stars" really means. I find the numbers fascinating!
Note: All of the following photos are real photos and not computer mock-ups (beyond the dot example). The objects in these photos exist (or at least existed, who knows where they are "now") and were photographed by cameras in the same manner that you would take a photo. Also, remember to click on each photo to get the "full size" version which delivers the full impact of the photo's lesson.
So let's begin!
Can you picture what 1 million looks like? In your mind, 1 million is a big number, but can you really see how big it is? What would 1 million dots in a 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 (10^6) grid look like?
But those are just meaningless dots, let's work with something more familiar...
Realize that every person above, and their friends, family, ancestors, and social connections, all live(d) on this single planet we call Earth. Every person's story all comes from this one of eight rock/gas spheres near a star. This single planet has billions and billions of stories.
Next, imagine every person in the above photo also opened the million dots image for a total of 100,000 people opening the image. Now we have 100 billion dots shared among them. 100 billion is huge; by many estimates it is approximately the same as the number of humans that have ever lived on this planet.
100 billion is the amount of stars in a single galaxy, such as the M51 "Whirlpool" galaxy:
can't be a single star. A few of the largest stars (much bigger than our sun) can be seen individually, but the rest of the glow is the combined light of billions of stars. In order to see 1 billion individual dots/stars you would need a sport stadium screen, and to see 100 billion dots you would need 100 stadium screens, a 810 x 810 ft jumbo-jumbotron about the height of the Metlife Building and the width of an Iowa-class battleship (or a cruise ship). So galaxies are big. But just how many galaxies are there?
This image is taken from a section of the sky that is about 1/15th the size of a full moon. Each speck of color here is a galaxy (each with about 100 billion stars with more planets than we could give away). And this is only one very small portion of the sky. It would take 31 million of these images to cover the full sphere of our sky. Just imagine this image is a single dot in our million dots image. You could look at a different million dots-representing-galaxies image every day for a month before seeing a galaxy twice. That puts a low estimate of 100 billion galaxies in the sky (each with enough stars to give one to every human). Or, put another way, for every single grain of sand on the Earth there are about 100 stars. And this is only based on the galaxies we can observe, there are likely many, many, more out there.
So the next time you are stressing about being late for work, or nervous about going on a first date, or enjoying a lazy weekend afternoon on the porch just remember that somewhere in the middle of the Sahara there is a grain of sand floating in the wind, and for that grain of sand there are 100 stars out there with their own planets which have their own stories to tell.
If you wish to see even more galaxies, this is how many galaxies can fit in a single square degree (about 4-5 times larger than a full moon).
Finally, I will end this post with a photo of the Earth (the "Pale Blue dot", taken 20 years ago this week) and quote by the late Carl Sagan:
" Look again at 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."
Special Thanks to the great Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy for the inspiration, links, photos,and advice on the content of this post! Check out his blog!