Thursday, February 11, 2010

Space and Numbers

In the past year I have studied many different fields to broaden my general knowledge. Astronomy, in particular, piqued my interest and came with some interesting facts the I "knew" but it took actually seeing them to realize what I knew. We use words like "million" and "billion" but rarely do we actually picture those numbers. To most people, they are just words that mean "a lot" and a billion is just larger than a million in the same way 20 is larger than 10. But it is not until you show them a picture that contains 1 million pixels, and then shrink that picture down and show it 1000 times that they may comprehend what those numbers represent.

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?
(click and zoom the image for full effect)

(Flickr mirror)

One million single spaced dots is so large that it would take one (72 dpi) screen with the height and width of 2.56 ft (roughly the length of your arm) to show the entire 2220 x 2220 image without scrolling. To view 1 billion dots, you would need an 81 x 81 ft screen, or roughly the area of the video screen used at the 2010 Super Bowl.

But those are just meaningless dots, let's work with something more familiar...

If you went to a college football game and took a photo of the audience in the stands (approx 100,000 people above), you would "know" that each pixel-sized human represents a person with a family: be it a father, mother, possible siblings, or even a husband/wife and kids of their own. Each person has their own story and background; their own friends, coworkers, and old schoolmates; their own vast array of human connections that span far beyond what this single picture shows. These people exist to you because they have familiar attributes in their lives also found in yours allowing you to easily imagine what life must be like for them (similar to your own). Look at any single person in this photo: he is not a figment of your imagination or a fake human representation created by an artist; each person here is a real person and exists (or did at the time of the photo).

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:

Look at this photo (click and zoom). Again, this image is just as real as the football stadium image above, every star in the image exists and is full of stories just like the people in the audience. Imagine every white dot in the image is a single star like our own sun, and that star had its own "family" of planets (each full of stories of their own, life or not). The number is so large that we could offer every human to ever live their own planet and we would still have enough planets left over to give to their pets too. And remember: each white dot in this small photo 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!


  1. Very cool!

    I have a question though. You say that 100 Billion is a common estimate for the number of humans that have ever lived on this planet. Do you have a source for that? All I recall is a silly statement that today's population is half of all those who have ever lived (which can't be true).

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  3. Outstanding! Can't wait to share this with others. (deleted previous comment, I was on the wrong account :)


  5. Thank you. That was awe-inspiring. What need do we have of gods and superstition when the enormity, the majesty and the mysteries of the universe are here for all of humankind to wonder and to marvel about?

  6. Outstanding. Excellent job. Welll done!

  7. Interesting. Scary in a way.

  8. I like '.. for every single grain of sand .. there are about 100 stars' Are there any reliable estimates for the number of sand grains on earth? Would the grains in soil be included? Excuse any perceived frivolity.

  9. Most probably one of the best posts I have read in a long lonnnnnnnnnnng time! :) Thanks!

  10. Wow…. amazing work –going to share this with all my friends. Thanks

  11. This seems entirely appropriate:

  12. That's nothing, you should walk over to the U.S. Treasury Department and watch them print dollars.

  13. Thanks for a great post Jay. I had been laying awake a good portion of the night contemplating something very similar. That is, the enormity of the universe(s) and how to relate that enormity to third graders for the sole and express purpose of sparking their imagination in an enduring way. Your post should work. It does for me.

  14. I was reading on Yahoo today that scientists created a form of peculiar matter called strange anti-matter that has a lifetime of only a fraction of a billionth of a second. Even though that gives the antistrange particles that orbit the anti nuclei enough time to revolve more time than the Earth has atound the sun since its formation.

  15. This was a very interesting article to read. Thank you for posting it.

  16. Thanks so much for your post. It amazes me that the God who created all of that and is so vast and infinite knows us by name, loves us, and cares for us. This was truly inspiring, humbling, and strengthens my faith in our smallness and God's greatness. When I see things like this I realize just how very very very little any of us know about anything.Thanks so much again for this post and others.

  17. After all that talk of the vastness of our existence, you say it strengthens your faith in god? Jay was talking about the ignorance of mans feuds and beliefs of our own significance. we were told of god like children are told of Santa Claus, to keep order and keep us good until "Christmas," Death. This article waked me up a bit, opened my eyes to the chance there is no god, we all need to wake up and not be one sided, "there is there isn't." Good for you if it strengthened your faith, but did you even take the time to consider if there was no god? Or is that human feuding ignorance saying No, there IS.

    1. "Good for you if it strengthened your faith, but did you even take the time to consider if there was no god?"

      There's no God? Then where did all this "vastness' come from? The universe suddenly popped out of nothing... and for no reason? That takes MORE faith than believing that the universe was created by God! But in the universe we see order, balance, beauty and purpose. To me, that is a strong indicator that the universe was created and that it is not just some gigantic, irrational accident.