The Imponderable Size of the Size of Imponderable Things

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A depiction of the galaxies in the visible universe. It is estimated that there are up to 500 billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, and each star with planets.

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity that lies before and after it, when I consider the little space I fill and I see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I rest frightened, and astonished, for there is no reason why I should be here rather than there. Why now rather than then? Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time have been ascribed to me? —Pascal

Astronomy is useful because it raises us above ourselves; it is useful because it is grand. . . . It shows us how small is man’s body, how great his mind, since his intelligence can embrace the whole of this dazzling immensity, where his body is only an obscure point, and enjoy its silent harmony. — Poincaré

I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars, and planets, has a deeper meaning, but at the very least it is clear that we humans who live on this Earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves. — Dalai Lama

The three quotations above show three different attitudes towards the relationship between humans and their cosmos. The first cosmos swallows man into insignificance; the sheer scale of time and space reduces humankind into specks of dust. The second also recognizes man as dust, but makes his mind equal to the immensity of space because it is his mind that dares to imagine within the eternal. The third subordinates such comparisons underneath the utilitarian and even involuntary need to make meaning regardless of size or scale, and to live meaningfully in an infinite cosmos. And the cosmos is that infinite thing that, despite the separate attitudes towards it, everyone must take for granted.

The size of the universe is incomprehensible. No one really knows how many galaxies exist. Currently, scientists estimate that there are a minimum of 200 billion galaxies, though this estimate has been pushed to 500 billion by some. But no one really knows.

Each galaxy contains billions of stars. And in fact no really knows how many stars are in our own galaxy. The low estimate is 100 billion stars. The high estimate is 400 billion stars. But in such wild estimates, what’s a billion stars? Our galaxy, however, is relatively small compared to others. Many galaxies are nearly 10 times the size of the Milky Way. The largest known galaxy appears to be 40 times the size of our galaxy with a mass of 100 trillion stars.

No one knows how many planets are in the universe. No one knows how many planets are within our own galaxy. In fact, we are not even sure how many planets are in our own solar system, judging from a new report of a possible large planet at the very edge of our own system. Planets were once thought to be relatively rare. N scientists are fairly certain that every star has a planet. Some stars, like our own, will have multiple planets. Others will have swarms of planets orbiting them. In other words, if there are countless trillions and trillions of stars, then there are going to be countless trillions and trillions of planets.

The space between the stars is also unimaginable. Stars are separated by light years of space. A light year is about 6 trillion miles. Most stars have 100 trillion miles of space around them. The closest galaxy to our own Milky Way is the Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy is over twice the size of our own with an estimated 1 trillion stars. It is 2.5 million light years away, and it just so happens to be heading our way. In about 4 billion years the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way Galaxy. The thing is, there is such vast distances between stars that when the two galaxies collide they will simply “pass through” each other, the gravitational pull of the stars combining the galaxies in a cosmic dance of give and take.

And this is just the macrocosm. Consider the microcosm. No one knows how many cells are in a human body. The best estimate is about 100 trillion. There are 100 trillion cells in a human body, each clustered into their own “galaxies” of relations and functions forming a fantastically rescaled universe within each of us. And further, it is estimated that there are 100 trillion atoms in each cell. Each atom is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. And the protons and neutrons are in turn  composed of quarks. Some have suggested that quarks (for convenience sake, the “smallest” known “particle”) may in fact be composed of even smaller energies/vibrations/particles. Furthermore, the relative distance between a proton and its orbiting electrons is greater than the relative distance of stars in our galaxy to each other.

From the above to the below the scale of the universe is imponderable. Such numbers and relations are impossible for the human mind to fathom. In the face of such depthless dimensions and cataclysmic powers separated by an eternal yawn of space, many people have rejected any religious notion of God, or Soul, or a special place in the cosmos for Humankind. We are nothing but specks of dust, goes the thinking, residing on a speck of dust swirling within other specks of dust; neither Earth nor Man is the center of anything, and therefore has no intrinsic meaning or value.

This is a strange conclusion. If the universe is immeasurable, why are we assigning meaning to its measure? In a universe incommensurate to our understanding of size and scale, why do we assign a meaninglessness to our size and scale? To say that we are nothing but specks of dust says nothing about our relationship with the universe. What difference would it make if Man were the size of a stellar red giant? Or Woman the size of a galaxy? If size and proportion are the only things that give meaning, then what is one star or galaxy in a countless sea of galaxies?

Nor is position important. Modern science has shown that the universe seems endless. It should strike one as rather elementary that in the infinite there is no center because there is no perimeter. In the eternal, every point in space is equal. One could actually say that every point is the center. But once again such notions are only reflections on size and scale, and the eternal reduces size and scale to the irrelevant.

Furthermore, consider if you were a “conscious” nucleotide embedded within a strand of DNA. If you looked around you might at first assume that the cosmos you lived in was the cell in which you resided. Over time, however, you discovered that there were other cells, other organs, galaxies of cells and formations stretching . . . well, 100 trillion times beyond your own little cosmos. In such space you might consider yourself utterly insignificant, meaningless, and pointless. But what happens to the cell, or the body at large, if you were to remove a segment of DNA here or there? The entire universe changes, or even collapses.

Looking at the universe as a two dimensional canvas reduces human beings as specks of dust. And if the universe in nothing but “rocks in motion,” as my old friend Lynn Hubbard likes to say, then perhaps such a two-dimensional view is justified. We human beings, however, are conscious. We can imagine, reason, create, and philosophize. That makes us really interesting specks of dust. Like nucleotides, conscious specks may hold an altogether different relation to the universe at large besides the relation of size and scale.

I have always found the idea of a fractal universe more plausible than a universe that is only up, down, left, and right. Here is a dictionary definition and a picture of a fractal:

fractal: a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.

Fractals are fluid geometric forms that emerge from the replication of the surrounding forms.

The image above shows a large construct of geometric forms that all flow from and reflect the surrounding forms. In fact, if you take one tiny segment of this image (the segment within the red square) and expand it you get this:

Fractals are scale-invariant, meaning that no matter what segment of
the image you look at, that segment will be a reflection of the whole.

One can truly get a sense of the geometric relations of fractals by watching this video: Mandlebrot Fractals. Madlebrot fractals are named after Benoit Mandlebrot who was a mathematician who created an algorithm that reproduced infinite fractal shapes.

Fractal geometry shows that complex systems can be interdependent, and that the smallest form or portion of that system is not only an integrated portion of the whole, but a fundamental reflection of the whole. This is called scale-invariance. No matter the scale, each part reflects every other part. While there is a vast difference in size, the nucleotide is as invariant in form and function as the liver, which in turn is as invariant as the entire pulmonary system, or the whole body. Scale invariance recognizes that star dust is as essential as galaxies, and that the two are in a very real way a reflection of each other.

This returns us back to the idea of the individual conscious soul and its relation to the universe. We human beings are specks of dust. The fact that we are conscious specks of dust should tell us a couple things about the universe however. First off, and what should seem obvious,  if we human beings are conscious beings, that means matter creates consciousness. The fact that no one has any idea how consciousness came about, or even what it is, should tell us that we still are clueless on very fundamental aspects of matter. If we as little specks of dust are conscious, then does that mean the universe is conscious? What does that mean? What could it mean?

Secondly, what would happen to the universe if all the little conscious specks of dust in it were removed? Would the universe just keep rolling on, as so many insist, or, are we conscious specks like the nucleotides in DNA? Would our removal essentially cause the collapse of the whole system?

I think maybe the latter is the case, and that perhaps we should consider that glittering within every speck of cosmic consciousness is a reflection of the whole cosmic scheme. And when it comes to consciousness, size is irrelevant because the soul is invariant.

And when it comes to consciousness, size is irrelevant because the soul is invariant.

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