It's Far Beyond The Stars, It's Near Beyond The Moon

Humans don't do well with scale. We can't process it. It's a fault really, our brains simply haven't evolved the capacity. We can comprehend about 500 people and about 100 square kilometers; outside of that, everything becomes increasingly abstract. This is one of the reasons our planet is in such dire straights, both physically and sociologically: we just cannot comprehend things on a global scale. At a certain point, our brains just kind of switch off, and don't even bother to make an attempt, like with space. We have no true ability to conceptualize how big space really is. Hell, over the weekend, I got stuck in a downward spiral trying to put into relatable terms how far away 1400 light years is, when discussing the discovery of Kepler-452b (for future reference, "1/7th of the width of the galaxy" is not a relatable term).

So I really like this simulation called Riding Light, created by Alphonse Swinehart. It shows, in real time, how long it would take a photon travelling the speed of light to travel from our sun to each of the planets in our solar system. The video is 45 minutes long, features a lot of empty space, and still only manages to get to Jupiter. And it drives home the notion, better than anything else I've seen, how just how appropriate the name "space" really is. There is a lot of it, even here at home, where (because we cannot comprehend scale) we tend to imagine all our planets and dwarf planets and comets all bunched up in a neat little mobile. We delete the vast gulfs of empty between each of those islands. And we do it willingly.

New Horizons has been getting a lot of well deserved press lately, but what is getting lost in the pretty pictures is two important facts: 1) it took New Horizons nine years to get to Pluto, and b) until a couple weeks ago, we never had a real picture of Pluto. That fact blew my mind, because all my life I've been shown pictures of Pluto and assumed that a telescope somewhere had gotten the shot. I never questioned it. But no. Pluto is so far away, even within our own solar system, that until a week ago, the best we had was a blurry jumble of pixels. It might not be a planet (it isn't), but it is still part of our home system and it is so far away, we view it with essentially the same distance as stars. So keep that in mind the next time you complain that it's a long way down the road to the chemist; that's just peanuts to space

Oh, and because I know you're wondering, if the video had continued it would have taken 1.3 hours to reach Saturn, 2.6 hours to reach Uranus, 4.1 hours to reach Neptune, and 5.5 to reach Pluto.

Via io9.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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