Oh My Stars! Or, an ordinary woman tries to comprehend the size of the universe

I know an awful lot more about space today than I did a year ago. I suspected I had something to do with my son’s intense interest in the cosmos because I did watch an awful lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns on the DVR during the first three or four months of his life, when the better part of our days were spent nursing and napping. But I couldn’t have named the Galilean moons of Jupiter. Or told you the names of any galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

These days, if I don’t clue in to words like quasar and understand that there are far more elaborate whirlpools than the ones that we see when the bathtub drains, I miss out on a lot of things that Declan is thinking about.

I grew up with the original Star Trek. Reruns, mind you. I remember exploring strange new worlds and civilizations on my back patio in New Jersey with my mom, brother and some friends. A small curtain was our transporter, and I was always Uhuru because she was the only female character. (I had high hopes for Lieutenant Tracy, but she was offered up for slaughter as quickly as she appeared on the show.)

Somewhere between my new cosmic awareness and a few Voyager and Deep Space Nine reruns in the past year, it finally dawned on me that I have been watching in relative ignorance. I either nodded off in 6th grade science or I just haven’t paid enough attention to space news over the years. At minimum, I glazed over during technical dialogue in Star Trek too often. I was never really conscious of the fact that the whole thing takes place in our Milky Way galaxy alone, and most of it in just one quadrant of our galaxy. Of course, that is not a small area. Our sun is, after all, one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. If we actually do make it to a significant number of other solar systems within those 25 billion-ish stars by the 23rd or 24th centuries, we will have made some kick-ass technological leaps.

Somehow, in my childhood brain, I never really differentiated between “galaxy” and “universe” and that stuck with me through adulthood. I never contemplated the massive stretches of void between this galaxy and another. I never really thought about other galaxies, because Earth alone has generally been plenty big enough for me to try and fathom. But beyond the 100 billion neighborhood stars in our neighborhood, the Hubble telescope tells us that there are at least 100 billion other galaxies. And presumably, many of those galaxies have their own 100 billion stars, at least.

Now they have found a HUGE hole in the universe that is nearly one billion light-years across. This means, I am told, that it’s about the size of 10,000 of our Milky Way galaxies laid end-to-end. These figures are so mind-boggling to me, the theory that we are all really just Sims begin to make sense.

I find something comforting in these new, daily reminders and revelations that I’m smaller, and more insignificant than I ever imagined. For a few moments, it can turn ordinary concerns – like the 20 percent increase in my health care premium that I just got word of in the mail on Saturday – to stardust.

Life soundtrack: The Ventures, Gold, “Telstar”
The Ventures - Gold - Telstar

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