“Turtles all the way up and turtles all the way down”: Introduction to March’s theme — Cosmos, by John Halstead

This month, our theme is the Cosmos. If you have an essay about astronomy or the stars, participle physics or quantum mechanics, or anything with huge numbers or very small ones, send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space 

Last summer, my wife and I were taking a walk around our neighborhood. As we looked up at the stars, we began to speculate as to how many stars there are. I got out my phone and started Googling. It turns out, I was way off.

The number of stars that you can see on a clear, moonless night in a dark area, far away from city lights, is only about 2,000. We live in a suburb. close to Chicago, and the combination of city lights and humid Midwestern air drastically reduces the number of stars we can see. We have a wildly different view of the night sky when we visit relatives in Utah and go up in the mountains or out in the desert.

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The Milky Way’s Galactic Center in the night sky above Paranal Observatory

All of the stars we can see are part of the Milky Way Galaxy, which our solar system is a tiny party of.  The Milky Way has at least 100,000,000,000 (100 billion) stars, and maybe four times that much.  Which means there are 50-200 million more stars in the Milky Way than we can even see on the clearest night!  (The average number of planets around each star is estimated at 2.5.)

And that’s just our galaxy.  Until the 1920s, it was believed that the Milky Way was the only galaxy.  Now we know that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe.  Which means there are approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10 sextillion) stars.  That is believed to be more stars than there are grains of sand on the entire earth!

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Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye.

If the whole galaxy were bright enough, this is what you’d see at night (with the moon as a reference).

If the whole galaxy were bright enough, this is what you’d see at night (with the moon as a reference).

If we want to get a sense of the size of a galaxy, we can look at Andromeda, our closest galactic neighbor.  It is 2.5 million light years away, which means we are just now seeing the light that left it 2.5 million years ago.  It is the only galaxy you can see in the northern hemisphere with the naked eye.  On the right is an image of what Andromeda looks like in our night sky.  We can only see the nucleus of the galaxy, because the rest of it is not bright enough.  But below is an image of what Andromeda would look like if we could see the whole thing.  This really gives you a sense of its enormity, given that it is 2.5 million light years away! Earlier this year, NASA released an image of the Andromeda galaxy.  At the bottom of this article is a video which zooms in on the sharpest image ever taken of our galactic next-door neighbor.

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And this is just the macrocosmic scale.  The universe is just as vast on the microcosmic scale: it goes “down” as far as it goes “up”.  By way of illustration, the scale of human beings to the earth is approximately the same as the scale of human beings to the smallest things visible in a microscope.  That is to say, the earth is on the scale of 10^7 meters (1 with 7 zeros behind it), while the smallest thing visible in a microscope exists on on the scale of 10^-7 meters (1 with a decimal point 7 zeros in front of it).  Similarly, the scale of human beings to our sun (10^9) is approximately the same as the scale of human beings to a water molecule (10^-9).  The Orion Nebula (of which we are a part) is on about the same scale (^17) in relation to us as the largest quarks are believe to be.  (Note, this is entirely theoretical and there is some doubt as to whether it is even meaningful to talk about “size” at this level.)  The Milky Way is on approximately the same scale (^21) in relation to us as an electron is.  And the Local Group and the Virgo Supercluster (the system of galaxies that includes the Milky Way) are on roughly the same scale (^23) in relation to us as the smallest of elementary particles, neutrinos.  It’s turtles all the way up and all the way down!  Here’s a fun interactive application that allows you to experience these scales.  And at the bottom of this article is another video which does the same thing.

If your mind was blown several paragraphs back, don’t worry.  So was mine.  Many words comes to mind.  Awesome.  Vast.  Incredible.  Overwhelming.  But even these words seem too small to wrap around this thing we call the “Universe”.  Even the words “Universe” or “Cosmos” may seem too small.  I think it is even bigger than what are the biggest word for many people: “God” or “Goddess”.

We can have three different reactions to the realization of the scale of the Cosmos (macro- and micro-):  (1) We can ignore it, keep our eyes on the ground, and shut our minds off from it.  (2) We can try to shrink it in our minds and wrap our words around it, words like “God” or “Goddess”, so that we can regain a sense, however illusory, of control or purposefulness.  (3) Or we can let it expand our minds, fully experience the joy and the terror it elicits, and just allow whatever words (or actions) happen to rise up from within our depths in response to it, without trying to limit it or control it.  Personally, I do a lot of No. 1 and No. 2, but it is the last approach that is most consonant with Humanistic Paganism.

This month, our theme is the Cosmos. If you have an essay about astronomy or the stars, participle physics or quantum mechanics, or anything with huge numbers or very small ones, send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

See John Halstead’s Posts.

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3 Comments on ““Turtles all the way up and turtles all the way down”: Introduction to March’s theme — Cosmos, by John Halstead

  1. That’s how big it would appear if we could see its full spacial dimensions with the naked eye?

    Mission mind-blow: accomplished.

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