In an excellent and seemingly off the cuff but rather subtle-in-delivery-and-content talk given a year ago in Washington D.C. at the House Science and National Labs Caucus which you can watch here, Neil De Grasse Tyson demonstrates that our exploration of space has provided so much more than technological and scientific advance.
Above and beyond those formidable accomplishments we gained something at least as valuable from the exploration of space: perspective. A rather unique and unanticipated perspective of our real place in the Cosmos; how our world really is. That perspective affected so much of our behavior then and now, including the environmental movement that took off immediately afterwards.
Tyson explains that human discovery shifted in the last few centuries from one of sailing to and exploring new lands to one of unparalleled discovery of new ideas in the science and technology of the 18th century continuing to the present day. He veritably dances around the stage (he was professionally trained as a dancer…and it shows) moving from point to point and then displays the image he really thinks changed the world’s frame of reference, even relative importance which adorned so many magazine covers from the late 60’s, and the Whole Earth catalog in the early 70’s:
Earth from Apollo 8.
Seen for the first time from the moon in 1968 as astronauts Lovell, Borman and Anders circled around the back side of the moon towards earth.
For Neil, this image and the perspective it provided really sparked the environmental movement by the sight of our pale blue and fragile water planet with its thin atmosphere suspended in space. One tidbit along with it, prior to the actual view of the earth from outer space, no-one depicted clouds when drawing what the earth looked like hanging out there in the empty cosmos. Artists prior to 1968 basically drew globes with the continents and even nation boundaries (which of course are invisible) but no clouds. No-one could know you would see the clouds from space. We had to go there.
The entire talk is delightful, typical Tyson, which besides promoting Congress to invest more in basic research science and space exploration, you get your money’s worth getting educated with his unique perspectives and the odd but totally nonrandom and cleverly included snippets of info like the clouds on earth. There’s many more, do watch it, its worth one’s time.
So he got me thinking about that perspective, that view from space, a change in the way we literally look at our earth and how it changed the way we think about the earth and our place in the universe.
So here’s a few more tidbits to enhance your perspective.
The distance from LA to London is nearly 5,500 miles. The earth itself is about 8,000 miles wide and the moon is roughly a quarter of a million miles (nearly 250,000 miles) away.
Our solar system extends over 20,000 TIMES FARTHER than the moon, nearly 5.5 billion miles to the last planet Neptune.
The gravitational effect of the Sun pulling in comets and attracting interstellar dust extends 1/2 way to the nearest star for 2 full light years, which is another 2,000 times farther than Neptune or 12 trillion miles.
The nearest star which is well within our little corner of the galaxy (Proxima Centuri) is another 2 light years away beyond the Sun’s gravitational influence, the center of our galaxy is 27 light years away and the galaxy itself 120,000 light years across…or roughly 720,000 trillion miles.
It is nearly impossible to think of these vast distances, a million miles is nothing we can experience, much less billions or trillions.
So here’s a tidbit I found a few years ago that may also give you a new perspective. It sure affected me.
We’ve been broadcasting radio waves since just after the turn of the century, so for just about 100 years they have been traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) or 6 trillion miles every year in all directions from earth. The image below depicts these distances. The little blue dot which contains our entire solar system and the nearest star Proxima along with another 10,000 stars or so is 200 light years in diameter! Yes, no shit. Us and 10,000 other stars in a circle 1,200 trillion miles across. That “little” dot.
You will also notice the square section of our Milky Way galaxy that our tiny blue dot resides in is itself only about 1/8 of the galaxy wide or about 15,000 light years across. In 100 years our radio waves (if anyone is listening) may have passed 10,000 stars beyond our solar system but have barely crossed .16 of one percent of the entire galaxy!
That’s right, our solar system, our neighbor Proxima Centauri and 10,000 other stars and whatever planetary systems they might have are all contained in that tiny blue dot, I shit you not!
It will take another 119,900 years for our radio transmissions to cover the whole Milky Way and pass thru all 100 billion star systems or so.
If you can fathom those numbers at all, read on for one more go…
The nearest galaxy M31, Andromeda, is two million light years away…do the math, that’s
12 million trillion miles!
So, if there were civilizations in the closest galaxy that could receive our broadcasts, they wouldn’t know about us for another 2 million years. Think about it, we have only been able to broadcast into space for 100 years, been living in cities with agriculture for less than 10,000 years and existing in our modern form of our species Homo sapiens for less than 200,000 years. It has been just about 2 million years since our genus Homo appeared. We were butchering animals with crude handaxes back then and that’s about it. No fire, no shelter, much less agriculture, cities, or radio transmitters!
And then of course there are in the neighborhood of 100 BILLION galaxies in the observable universe, each containing on average 100 billion stars like ours.
Quite a perspective.
Happy New Year!