In the middle of nowhere

We are in the middle of nowhere, in every sense of the phrase. See that full-stop at the end of the sentence beneath the question mark? There’s roughly 500,000,000,000 protons in that dot, and this one. As astonishing as that realization is, our little planet orbits one of anywhere up to 400,000,000,000 stars within the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is just one among anywhere from 200,000,000,000 galaxies to potentially a trillion galaxies. And that’s just from what we can see in the observable universe. We’re awash in a vast galactic sea.

The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose – J.B.S. Haldane

Let’s put the size of just our solar system in perspective for a moment.

Scale model Size Distance
Sun Swiss Fitness Ball At your feet
Mercury Stud/sleeper earring 100 feet away
Venus Chickpea 200 feet away
Earth Chickpea 270 feet away
Mars Diamond from an engagement ring 400 feet away
Ceres (asteroid) Full stop (like this one.) 750 feet away
Jupiter Baseball Quarter mile mark
Saturn Tennis ball Almost half a mile
Uranus US Quarter (25c coin) Just shy of a mile
Neptune US Quarter (25c coin) One and a half miles
Pluto A minus sign (-) Two miles away

I’m not sure where you are as you read this blog post, but pick a point roughly opposite your current location, somewhere on the far side of the planet, and that’s roughly where you’ll find the nearest star in our basketball scale model.

It’s fair to say, if you were standing behind that basketball you’d struggle to see anything at all. There’s a whole lot of nothing out there. I don’t know how good your eyesight is, but I’d struggle to spot an earring at anything over about 5-10 feet, but certainly not a hundred feet. And as for spotting another basketball 10,000 miles away, well, that gives you some idea of how incredibly radiant stars are.

Looking up at the stars, the universe looks like tiny pinpricks of light, but those bright dots are phenomenally large, and the distances between them are unimaginably vast. On the darkest of nights, you might see 2,500 stars, a mere 0.000000006% of the stars within just the Milky Way.

It’s difficult to grasp the immensity of space and the size of a single galaxy, let alone all the galaxies in the universe. And yet Google has set out to plot the location of 100,000 stars within the Milky Way. Google has launched its star explorer, mapping the 100,000 stars closest to Earth. Even this, though, still only represents 0.00000025% of the stars within our galaxy. To Google’s credit, they’ve depicted the rest of the galaxy graphically, while still allowing you to fly through the 100,000 stars closest to us.

Book One of my novel Galactic Exploration describes the journey of the Serengeti out above the galactic plane, and Google have captured precisely that view.

The specks of light you can see here are not stars, they’re clusters and groupings of stars, each one containing tens of thousands of stars. At this scale, individual stars are not readily apparent and this gives you some idea of the immensity of the challenge faced by SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. There’s an awful lot of stars to scan.

If you go to the Google 100,000 stars project be sure to hit the play button and take the tour, it’s well worth your time.

8 thoughts on “In the middle of nowhere

  1. This is a spectacular illustration of scale and perspective. I will use this with my classrooms. In fact, a good idea would be to construct this along side a walkway here in Key West to create a visual to go along with the information. (Our island is 2 miles x 4 miles; we have a single sidewalk along the Atlantic-side which may be just long enough!)

    Thanks for this, Peter. Simply extraordinary!

    • Mats… opps, yes, that’s what happens when you live in a country that uses metrics and try to post blogs using US measurements. Thank you for pointing this out. I’ve updated the post accordingly.

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