Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Matter Of Perspective

I have a passion for putting things in perspective. Take an orange, say about 4 inches in diameter. Pretend it is our sun with a diameter of 1 million miles (864,000 is more exact but will be avoided for simplicity's sake). Earth would be a small pellet (just shy of 1 millimeter in diameter) approximately 35 feet from our orange. Pluto, arguably the most remote planet, would be a tiny speck (barely one-tenth of a millimeter across) about a quarter mile or 1,389 feet away from our orange. The closest star to our orange is, brace yourself, another orange over 1,700 miles away! It is the Alpha Centauri star system, in reality about 4 light-years distant (186,000 miles per second for 4 years) or slightly more than 23 trillion miles, similar in magnitude to our country's debt!

Brace yourself again. This “density” of oranges spaced almost 2,000 miles apart is actually quite high for the universe as a whole. Most of intergalactic space is far more desolate.

The next thing I'm going to tell you is probably far more incredible than either of the aforementioned tidbits but is hard to grasp in any meaningful way, as if anything associated with interstellar space is. Assuming the Milky Way's 100,000 light-year diameter to contain about 100 billion stars (though today's estimates are generally much higher, on the order of perhaps 1 trillion stars), if one were to imagine clumping them together such that their ends were touching each other, every last one of them would fit in our solar system!

Of course this could never happen because all the stars would collapse into one super-ginormous black hole if they came into such close proximity! But aside from this annoying detail, if it is assumed the Milky Way's 100 billion stars are on average about 1 million miles in diameter (slightly more than the sun) and our solar system is a sphere with a 3.6 billion mile radius (this being Pluto's average orbital radius), they would in fact fit with much room to spare.

The volume of space in our solar system alone is so utterly breathtaking it could cause cardiac arrest on the impressionable. With a radius of 3.6 billion miles, there are an incredible 195 octillion cubic miles of space in our miniscule little solar system! The supposed 100 billion stars (stacked end to end like cubes in the shape of a sphere) take up a mere 100 octillion cubic miles, about half the solar system's volume!

We can also measure the volume of all the combined stars as if their contents were dumped like liquid into the sphere that is our solar system. In this way, there would be far more room left over than stacking all the stars like boxes(remember, when you stack balls, there is much room “waisted” between the balls). The necessary volume for this configuration of stars would only be about 52 octillion cubic miles, or about a quarter of the volume of our solar system.

What the hell is an octillion anyway? It's a thousand trillion trillion! Or a billion billion billion! Or how about a thousand million million million MILLION? Pluto's orbit maxes out somewhere around 3.6 billion miles from the sun but there have been other observed objects farther out still considered part of our solar system. This additional space could potentially allow for the purported 1 trillion stars in our galaxy if the radius of our solar system was bumped up to slightly more than 6 billion miles yielding approximately 1 nonillion or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 cubic miles of real estate!

I know you think this must be wrong as I myself did when I initially pondered this idea. But suffice it to say, I have done the calculations and surprisingly it actually is the case!

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