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Sunday, April 30, 2006 

If you don't read the whole thing, it won't make sense.

Take a drive out into the country on a clear night, away from lights and electricity and look up into the sky. This works really well in the summertime when the northern lights are out, because the northern lights are beautiful and help the imagination take flight.

Settle in, relax on some lounge chairs, crack a beer or smoke a joint if the mood strikes you, and consider a few things, while you gaze into the abyss of space. Consider that Earth is sphere, in the neighborhood of 8,000 miles in diameter. In contrast to most of the things that we deal with on a day to day basis, Earth is really big. Huge. Gigantic. There is more Earth than a single human being could possibly experience in a lifetime and actually enjoy it. Then consider the fact that there are nearly six billion intelligent beings on this planet that area also struggling with the exact (or very nearly the exact) same problems that you are. This last part is the hardest because six billion is not an easy number to conceptualize. And let’s not forget all the dogs, cats, chimpanzees, amoebas, trees, whales, etc, etc…etc

But lets continue outward. It is almost inconceivable to get a real sense of scale with the solar system. So let’s look at it in a very specific way. We’ll start with the Sun. It’s really, really huge. It has a diameter of about 8 hundred thousand miles, and consists of 99.8 percent of the mass of the entire solar system. If the Sun was the size of a bowlilng ball, the Earth would be little more than a peppercorn. And remember, Earth is huge.

But then think about the 93 million miles between the Earth and the Sun. If we maintain that the Sun is the size of a bowling ball, then Earth is about a quarter of a football field away. A peppercorn twenty-six yards from a bowling ball. The last planet in the solar system, Pluto, is half a mile away, and it is smaller than a pinhead.

It gets wilder. Consider that light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second. It takes over eight minutes for the Sun’s light to reach Earth at that speed. It takes five and a half hours to get to Pluto.

Light travels about 10 trillion kilometers in a year; thus that distance is called a lightyear. These are numbers that we can’t even fathom. The next nearest solar system to ours has been called by us, Alpha Centauri. It is 4 light years away—or 40 trillion kilometers of empty black nothingness. No mere bowling ball is going to give us a mental image of how big a distance this is. The next closest neighbor is 10 light-years away. In ten light-years, there are three stars.
It takes light 150,000 years to get from one end of our solar system to the other. That’s 1.5 billion billion kilometers! Repeat that in your head a few times. Say it out loud. Really let it sink in. The first time I tried, I couldn’t sleep for two days. That’s a true story.

To understand that the light we are seeing from the farthest reaches of our own galaxy left there right around the time that modern humans were just taking their first tentative steps in this world, made me lose sleep. Our huge sun is suddenly very tiny. Smaller than a peppercorn, and a lot farther from anything.

The next cloesest galaxy to ours is called Andromeda and it is 2.3 million light-years from the Milky Way galaxy. Again, that’s 23 billion billion kilometers. That light left Andromeda near the end of the Pliocene, right around the time that Australopithecus starting shambling around on two feet.

And everything between the Milky Way and Andromeda is the empty vacuum of space. Think about that. The diameter of our entire galaxy, in which our Sun is a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, is about 6 percent of the distance to its nearest galactic neighbor. This is a distance the human mind will never be able to truly fathom.

So there’s the Earth, orbiting its sun, one of another 100 billion stars in the same galaxy, in a universe with (by most estimates) approximately 200 billion galaxies all scattered across the vastness of the cosmos, of which maybe 6 percent consists of galaxies, which are mostly empty space anyway (our huge sun is very, very tiny)… I use ‘vastness’ in place of a word that has not yet been invented. Maybe there can be no word, for to truly attempt to conceive of these monumental distances could drive one to insanity.

And these distances are nothing compared to the vastness of time.

The question is this: How can we presume to think that anything we do is important in the general scheme of things? How can we possibly think that we are special? We crawled up and awakened to reason, not a minute ago, after an eternity with none. And in that minute (150,000 years to the current estimated age of the universe: 13 billion years, or a little over .000 001% of the history of the universe), we ask every question that we can think of to ask—hopefully—and soon enough, we will be gone. And nothing will have happened.

We are not a factor. In a sense, we are all an endangered species, teetering on the brink of annihilation. So I say, here we are, a weak, frail animal, in the midst of everything (which consists of mostly nothing), with nothing to fend for ourselves except our intellect. We are nothing in the middle of nothing. Nothing any of us ever does is going to have the slightest impact on anything in the most general scheme of things.

Is this depressing?

It sure as shit can be. But from another perspective, it’s the most wonderful thing that the universe has ever given humanity. I find it to be truly beautiful. It fills me with an incredible amount of awe and wonder that so much love, hate, beauty, ugliness, betrayal, honor, actually does occur. To imagine that so much activity can go on at the smallest of scales, when literally nothing at all is going on at the largest of scales. It also means that no matter who you are, being “somebody” is pointless.

There are a number of possible ways that this all can be interpreted. From an existential point of view, it is precisely that insignificance which takes a figurative “weight” away, and frees us up to do what we want with our lives. In fact, it can be argued that it seems to even force on us an obligation to experience as much as possible, to live as truly free individuals. And this is certainly one of the reasons that I write.

However, while that is the intellectual justification for it, there is something much deeper, something much more intuitive about it. It is precisely the knowledge of the perspective that is inspirational. It is sitting out in that field staring at the sky, imagining how small I am, and wondering about the wondrous and mystifying things that must exist out there in the depths of the cosmos, it is looking at all the wonderful things that science has discovered, all of the pure knowledge, the intricacies of the Standard Model of physics, the explorations of general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, evolution, geology, chemistry, anthropology, all of these wonderful and intricate things about the world that drives me. It is pondering them and marveling at just how beautiful the world is in all its complexity, all its mystery, all its splendor that is the real source of inspiration for me. It is this precisely that is the real reason I do what I do. This is really why I write.

That is possibly the most beautiful thing I have read in a very, very long time. Thank you, Mr. Kuha. Thank you!

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