Quid Rides? De te Fabula Narratur

What are you laughing at? The joke's on you.

This Amazing Universe

Posted by Anthony on May 5, 2009

By Anthony J. Aschettino

For this year’s ultimate edition of Quid Rides, we invite our readers to ponder something their ancestors have since the first humanoid creature gazed up at the sky during the night and wondered what exactly was out there: our universe.

Since the dawn of civilization, we as a species have been fascinated by the universe and rightly so: there is nothing comparable to the majesty of its boundless mystery, forcing us to keep prying away in order to grasp even a bit of understanding about it. Long has man looked at the stars and the moon, indeed all of the heavenly bodies, and guessed what they were and what purpose they serve us.

In the beginning, we thought that we were the center of the universe: believing in gods, why would man not think that he had a special place in the grand scheme of things? Thus did man see in the constellations figures of old and all sorts of mythical beings the names of which we still adhere to today.

It took centuries of learning before we realized that we were in fact not the center of the universe and, in reality, that the universe is something larger than ever could be expected. We are but a tiny speck of a planet revolving around a small star on a spiral arm of a small galaxy: hardly the kind of thing that inspires delusions of grandeur. Whereas man once thought that he could name each star, we now know that there are untold trillions of them, spread out so far (and moving farther away every second) that even moving at the speed of light it would take billions of years to reach some of them.

The universe is a place of great beauty, and the pictures we can now get from our advanced telescopes show us galaxies and nebulae that are truly awe-inspiring in their size and complexity. It is also a place of great violence, with exploding stars, black holes, and gamma ray bursts. Every year we learn more about our universe, and with every answer it seems that several new questions arise.

It is humbling indeed to think that the lights from stars one sees in the night sky left their celestial bodies billions of years ago in some cases and is just arriving now; just recently, astronomers have detected a gamma ray burst from the death of a star 13 billion years ago. Think, if you will, about the concept of just how far 13 billion light years is: light travels at about 299,792, 458 meters per second. Calculate it out, and one gets a distance of approximately 76,422,190,000,000,000,000,000 miles. If that truly astronomical (the reason we use the word for such large numbers) distance does not engage one’s sense of wonder, perhaps nothing really will.

The universe intrigues man in a large part because we will never really fully understand it; no matter how long we as a species survive, the rate of receding acceleration prevalent in the universe assures us that we will never be able to discover everything. But we will try, and each new discovery helps us to understand this cosmic zoo in which we live a little better.

Since summer break is now upon us, we here at Quid Rides would like to suggest a bit of reading: do yourself a favor and go pick up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Death by Black Hole. It is an excellent book, and his explanations of even some of the more complex theories out there about the universe are made simple and readily accessible to a reader with little understanding of physics. His writing manner is simple yet elegant, and the book is a true joy to read.

In the past, man has spent large amounts of energy trying to understand the vast wonder that is our place in the universe. We have created gods of all sorts to explain this phenomenon or that, and have labored hard to shoehorn a belief that we are special into the growing awareness that we are quite irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Yet it is precisely this awareness of the universe in all its grandeur that should awe us more than any created myth; we happen to be a part, albeit rather miniscule, of quite an amazing place about which we learn more with every passing day and yet still maintain a sense of wonder.

This summer, take some time to gaze at the stars and reflect on the majesty that is our universe. The more you know about it, the better you will understand why our ancestors, even with their limited technology and knowledge, were able to appreciate its uniqueness and glory.

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