The Cracker Barrel: A cosmic perspective
Pequot Lakes resident Craig Nagel muses about our incredibly huge and complicated universe
A month ago, weary of dealing with winter and filled with disgust at the thought of enduring the ongoing insanity of truth-twisting political warfare, I went to the library in search of calmer, more insightful fare.
I emerged with what I thought might be the perfect antidote to our current national dysfunction: a little volume by Neil deGrasse Tyson titled "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry."
Tyson, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History and director of its world-famous Hayden Planetarium, also hosts the hit radio and TV show "StarTalk" and has written several other books.
Like most folks, my grasp of astronomy — let alone astrophysics — might best be defined as spotty. Staring up at the sky at night, I can point out the Big and Little Dipper, confidently locate Polaris and, well, everybody knows where the Milky Way is, don’t they?
I long ago learned that, with the unaided (naked) eye, we humans can only see approximately 2,500 stars. I know our moon is roughly a quarter million miles away, and the star we call The Sun is 93 million.
Having spent much of my working career building things out of stone, I’m also familiar with the force called gravity, which is what makes snowflakes and Newton’s apples and rocks fall down instead of up and accounts for the recurrent pain in my lower back.
Beyond that, my knowledge tapers off rapidly. So it came as something of a surprise to read the first two paragraphs in Tyson’s book: “In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”
And: “Conditions were so hot, the basic forces of nature that collectively describe the universe were unified. Though still unknown how it came into existence, this sub-pinpoint-size cosmos could only expand. Rapidly. In what today we call the big bang.”
Sound a bit hard to believe? I thought so. But then so do most stories about the creation of the universe.
As I read on into the book, I was struck by the fact that making sense of the insights of modern science requires a great deal of study as well as an open mind, along with the conviction that the whole enterprise of cosmic inquiry is moving us closer to truth.
Still, what ordinary mortal might have expected that the rapid outward expansion of the universe would continue unabated even today, or that in the first few nanoseconds of expanding, the temperature would cool to a mere billion degrees and the once-welded-together cosmic forces would separate into the four forces Tyson presumes we already know and love: the weak force controlling radioactive decay, the strong force binding the atomic nucleus, the electromagnetic force binding molecules, and gravity binding bulk matter such as stones and grapefruits.
The more I read, the more I began to realize how little I actually grasped about the larger world in which we live. My level of cosmic sophistication was apparently stalled at the grade-school level.
I closed the book and returned it to the library, and I decided I would carry on my astrophysical investigations via articles on the internet, if at all.
Insights about the universe have occurred at an ever quickening pace over the past half century, aided by the coming of the computer and giant improvements in the design and construction of modern devices such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, capable of capturing images of things a million light years away.
Since a single light year is 5.88 trillion miles, a million of them makes for what my long-deceased Uncle John would call “a far piece.”
The more I thought about it, the calmer I felt.
Yes, the universe is incredibly huge, and more complicated than my poor brain can grasp. But that’s OK. The fact that we’re alive and able to enjoy the benefits of sunshine and take delight in the beauty of the moon and stars is a gift beyond measure, and one which should fill us with cosmic joy.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.