How Big Is the Universe?
Have you ever looked up at the night sky and pondered about your very own existence? Maybe you were camping out with some friends, or all alone marveling at the big canvas of darkness plastered with countless glowing stars. Well, you’re not alone. Looking above and contemplating the sheer immensity of the Universe is something humans have been doing since the dawn of time.
It’s quite magical that recognizing you’re a part of something inexplicably huge and impersonal can elicit feelings that are so deep, reflective and personal.
Whenever you find yourself lost in these pensive moments, know that the Universe, this ancient organism that we were somehow born into, is calling you on a spiritual journey that is in one way or another meant to guide you through your deep and existential emotions, and help you find your place in its cold yet comforting grasp. The ancient Stoics understood precisely how immense our human problems could feel. They knew how a bad day at work could develop into a week of aggravation. They knew how a string of bad luck could become a gateway to depression.
But they also knew how insignificant our problems really are in the grand scheme of things, and that once we fully understood this cosmic scale, we would truly become free. So if you’re having a bad day, or you feel just a bit out of sorts, find a quiet place, and prepare yourself to witness the view from above for the first time. You’re about to embark on a journey outside of your own body, a celestial adventure meant to help you understand the sheer size of our ever-expanding Universe, and in the process, your place in it. Because only when you look from above, will you be able to understand what’s within.
So take a deep breath and close your eyes. Your journey across the universe is about to begin. Wherever you are right now, imagine yourself slowly lifting out of your body and floating in the vicinity of the room you’re in. Observe your surroundings. You’re no longer confined to the borders of your own body. Can you see yourself sitting there with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths? Looks weird, right? If you think about it, no one really knows you like you know yourself. People’s perceptions of you are based on their own interactions with you.
They have their own biases and judgments, and while some of them come close to knowing who you really are, none of them ever fully do. Floating around in your room, you can finally experience your true self. You can observe your body without being inside of it. The room you’re in, in all its familiarity, could very well feel alien to you right now. You may have grown up in this room, spent years developing your sense of self, and yet as you float around none of it feels genuinely yours.
As the abstract feeling of detachment swirls through your mind, you suddenly zoom out to observe the countless houses in your neighborhood or the endless apartments stacked in towering skyscrapers. People just like you wake up every morning and carry on living in the same houses, growing up in the same streets and leading similar lives. It’s funny how we can be so physically close to each other, and yet know nothing of one another.
How many people live in your town, or city? How many of them do you really know? What are their dreams and ambitions? Their fears and insecurities? Do you think they are that different to yours? We tend to think that our human experience is so unique that no one, not a single person out of the nearly eight billion of us on this planet, can begin to understand what we are going through. But the truth is we are a lot more similar than we believe, and that should give us solace in the face of adversity.
Look at the houses in your neighborhood, or the buildings stacked elegantly next to each other. They are all the same. As you witness this view from above, your heart will begin to fill with an unexpected warmth as you feel connected to every one of the humans inside those houses. It’s like a piece of you lives in every single one of them. A lot of the towns in the U.S, have populations of a thousand and yet we call them small. But aren’t a thousand people a lot? Try and imagine that number on a football field or a basketball court. Are these towns still considered small in your eyes?
The United States is actually considered a nation of small towns. Out of a population of around 330 million people, data from the past decade shows that three-fourths live in cities and towns with fewer than 5,000 people. So I ask again, is a thousand small? Continue to zoom out and you begin to see the towns and cities that make up states bound by imaginary borders. Or are they really imaginary? There are around 40 million people living in California, basking in the golden sun of the Pacific Ocean. On the other hand, there are only about 732,000 people living an entirely different life in the cold of Alaska.
The life of a Californian is very different from that of an Alaskan, even if both are just humans trying to make the most out of their puzzling existence. Our history has also drawn some real blood-stained boundaries, separating us and forcing us to focus on our differences rather than our similarities. Wars have claimed millions of lives, mostly in the name of ideologies of separation and alienation. As you slowly travel the globe from the American continent you see how life can develop completely differently despite proximity.
Throughout history many countries fought internal civil battles and subsequently declared their own independence. South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and Montenegro became its own state after separating from Serbia in 2006. Many more have separated and declared their independence which makes you wonder how defined we are by the countries we are born into.
Are you still breathing? Your journey through planet Earth is almost over. You’ve lifted from your body, away from your hometown, out of your home country and now you are floating in the atmosphere of our tiny blue planet, perhaps aboard the International Space Station. In 24 hours, this tiny space station orbits our planet 16 times. 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets. Imagine looking at Earth as you orbit its 40,075 km (24,901 miles) circumference.
Except for the moon landing, everything that has ever happened in the history of humanity has happened on this planet. Everything we’ve ever experienced…every joy, every disappointment, every love, and every broken heart. Our entire human experience is presently confined to this rotating globe floating in the vastness of space. And as it rotates at 1,675 km/hour, (1,041 m/hour) time passes and washes away all that ever was and makes room for whatever there is to come.
Our planet has existed for 4.5 billion years, but us modern humans have only been here for 200,000 years, and civilization as we know it is only around 6,000 years old. You and me, if we’re lucky enough, will only get to experience around 80 more of those years. Everything that happened before and everything that will happen after, we can only imagine. The burden of our existence is nothing but a speck of dust in the cosmic hourglass.
Looking at Earth from above could be daunting. Astronauts that live on the ISS almost always come back to Earth with a fundamental understanding of what it truly means to be alive, and what matters most in life. Take another long and deep breath. Let your lungs fill with the magnitude of what you’ve already experienced and what you’re about to experience. You’re going to journey further into space, deep into our Solar System and then into unchartered territory where no human has ever traversed.
Leave all your human preconceptions behind and open your heart to the expanding Universe. As you finally break free from Earth’s atmosphere, imagine yourself floating further to the edge of interstellar space, looking at our Solar System as a whole. Eight planets circling around a glowing star. Each one of these planets has its own unique story. From Saturn’s ringed beauty, to the massive bulk of Jupiter and its great red spot big enough to engulf the entirety of Earth.
But even Jupiter’s incredible mass holds no candle to the centerpiece of our glorious Solar System. The Sun. The star that holds our collection of planets together. Our Sun is 109 times wider than Earth and makes up 99.8% of our Solar System’s entire mass. Put everything you’ve just experienced into scale and then compare it to the sheer magnitude of our glowing star and let that sink in for a second.
Let’s take a step further and slowly leave the safety of our Solar System. Observe as the Sun itself becomes a small particle, barely visible from our astronomical vantage point. You look around you and notice countless other stars. Billions of glowing specks everywhere you turn. There are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. More than 10,000 stars for each grain, in fact.
Most of these stars have planets orbiting around them, just like our Solar System. If the primordial soup that spawned life on Earth managed to replicate on one of these countless planets, would it be similar to life as we know it on Earth? Would they wonder about their existence the same way we do? Would they understand how small and insignificant their problems are in the grand scheme of things?
Imagine alien civilizations, fighting through their own existence just like you and I. Imagine the struggle to exist in the Universe every day. Planets that harbor life, that orbit stars, that makeup galaxies, that float around alone in space.
You are now leaving the Milky Way, and venturing further out into the still and silent darkness of the Universe. Everywhere you look there is a galaxy waiting to be explored. A galaxy that could harbor a star, that might have a planet that somehow managed to produce life against all odds.
One more deep breath and you are now looking at the entire observable Universe. One big organism that is at least 92 billion light-years wide. Now that you’ve been able to observe the Universe as a whole, it’s time to slowly bring it all back in. Let’s find the Milky Way among the hundreds of billions of galaxies out there. Let’s find our Sun among the 100 thousand million stars in our home galaxy. We’re finally back in our Solar System. Passing from Neptune to Saturn to Mars, and finally Earth.
You jump from the ISS and burst through the atmosphere and then cross the imaginary borders that are meant to separate us. Find your country, your state, your street, and then your home. Finally look at yourself breathing, taking all that experience in. Take one last deep breath and open your eyes.
Next time you’re feeling down or the world seems to be taking too much of a toll on you, contemplate your existence and remember this moment, this feeling, this experience. Let it remind you that whatever is weighing you down is only temporary, a minor setback in the grand cosmic scale.