Large Numbers

On my recent long drive back from Nebraska I was pondering just how expansive our great country is, but also how people today are so impressed by large numbers, especially when preceded by a $ sign. But numbers are really just abstract ciphers until we attach some more pertinent meaning to them. For instance, they can be helpful in measuring relationships between physical objects or to gain some sense of proportion. My mind then wandered into the field of astronomy where Really Big numbers are common, everyday occurrences. It turns out this big, old world of ours is really pretty insignificant in the universal scheme of existence, and yet its significance derives not from any physical properties but because it contains something that is exceedingly rare in the cosmos, and even more precious: life.

But to put our little orb into perspective I did a few quick mental calculations which you might find fascinating. Imagine for the moment that our mighty sun, upon which all earthly life depends, were the size of a large grapefruit, about 6″ wide. Now consider that the nearest star to our solar star, Alpha Centauri is also a grapefruit sized orb floating around in free space. Between these two grapefruits is a vast ocean of nothingness which we call space.  What would the relationship of these two neighbor stars be on a relative scale? If you were to place one grapefruit, our sun, in Central Park in New York City then the other grapefruit representing Alpha Centauri would be located in San Francisco! Remember that when you gaze into the clear night sky pocked with millions of stars and realize that each one is surrounded by a comparable field of nothing but vacuous space.

And how does the earth fit into our little scheme? Well, our little solar system does manage to orbit around our grapefruit sized sun but what does it look like at this scale? Our planet, third from the sun, is about the size of the tip of a ball point pen. It orbits the sun at a distance of about 50 feet. Not very impressive when the next star is in San Francisco on the West coast. In fact our entire solar system would fit into a radius of about three blocks from the sun. And remember that everything outside that radius is cold, dark, empty space. There is no rest stop in Cleveland, Omaha, or Denver. Those places don’t exist anymore than Iowa cornfields or the High Sierras. Only a 2,600 mile expanse of vacant space.

Or imagine that the sun is sitting right on home plate in Yankee Stadium. Earth doesn’t even make it to the pitcher’s mound (that would actually be Mars). Jupiter, the gas giant beyond the asteriod belt would qualify as a pop fly to center field. You would have to reach Saturn, nearly a billion miles out, to register a long home run. Meanwhile our closest star neighbor is waiting out on the West coast to hear results of the game. But even if the game were being broadcast, it would take 4.5 years for the radio transmission to even reach fans on Alpha Centauri with the play by play.

One last way of thinking about the vastness of such distances. Suppose you were in a car travelling at 70 mph, non-stop on the interstate from New York to San Francisco. Even assuming that you never needed to stop for gas, food, sleep, or even a bathroom break you would be on the road about 45 hours to reach your destination. But once out of the gate it would take all of three seconds to whiz past the earth. Sixteen seconds into the trip you might see Jupiter fly by and within the first minute and a half you would be leaving our cozy solar system. The remaining 44 hrs. and 58.5 minutes might prove to be a little tedious as far as scenery goes.

Does our little mental space odyssey prove anything? Only that we are an incredibly insignificant speck of dust in an overwhelmingly vast cosmos, because these are only two average stars in a galaxy of 100 billion such stars, which is only one of a 100 billion galaxies in the known universe. What is unknown the mind cannot possibly comprehend. But our true significance stems from an un-quantifiable reality, the fact that rational life prospers on this little rock despite the overwhelming probability against its existence. That is why life is not something that can be taken for granted, ever. Our value proceeds from the fact that God saw fit to create and sustain such improbable creatures in such a vast and inhospitable universe, and not only to create but to redeem them when things went wrong.

Numbers, even the largest imaginable, cannot quantify or justify human life because it is something that has value outside of and beyond the realm of sheer numbers. It’s certainly not our size or ability to measure things that matter, but the fact that we are beloved in the eyes of our Creator. If scientists would only factor that intangible variable into their equations we might all live in a more humane world where science and technology worked more to the good of mankind and the honor and glory of God and less to the acquisition of new and more destructive powers. But the truth that will engender real happiness cannot be found in more and bigger numbers but only in the smallness of the human heart.

Francis J. Pierson   +a.m.d.g.

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