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February 19, 2006

The Vastness of Space

So, I'm reading an interesting book right now called The Braided World by Kay Kenyon. It is kind of a sequel to her book Maximum Ice (which I enjoyed) so, I thought I would pick this one up too. The Braided World tells of a crew of humans traveling 30 light years to a distant planet with the hopes of finding some of humanity's lost genetic diversity. That is as far as I've gotten.

But what I'd like to write about today is that figure: 30 light years. 30 light years is the distance it takes for light (traveling at the speed of light) to travel if it traveld for 30 years. In other words, 30 light years is a long, long way off. Think about it: even if we had a space craft that could travel at the speed of light, it would have to be able to maintain that speed for 30 years to get to this fictional planet. Needless to say, with our existing technology we aren't anywhere near the ability to become interstellar space travelers anytime soon.

This got me to thinking about another book I've read that describes the vastness of space specifically in our own solar system. In the amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson describes space like this (page 24):

Now the first thing you are likely to realize is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it—the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets, and other miscellaneous drifting detritus—fills less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realize that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system were remotely drawn to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighborly intervals—the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations—but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same piece of paper. Neptune in reality isn’t just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it’s way beyond Jupiter—five times farther from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 percent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was no bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over thirty-five feet away.

In other words, our solar system is absolutely huge compared to the distance we traveled on our last vacations. Bryson goes on to say that it is unlikely that any human will ever visit the edge of our solar system. It is just too far away. It is the reason why science fiction authors always describe space travel through special means like going through wormholes or black holes ... these theories, and theories yet devised, are probably our only hope of ever getting past Mars.

When I read books about humans traveling to distant planets to meet with an alien civilization I can't help but think about stuff like this. Space travel, using our existing technology, is woefully inadequate. Quite frankly, it is impossible. Thus ends another episode of "who gives a rat's butt theater." Stay tuned for more.

Posted by snackeru at February 19, 2006 7:48 PM | Books | Stuff I wonder about


Greet Machine: Come for the ballpark talk, stay for the mind-numbing insignificance of it all.

Posted by: freealonzo at February 20, 2006 10:53 AM

There is a "movement" or at least a special interest group where this is one of their main focii. They call their type of Sci-Fi mundane. You can visit them at mundane-sf.blogspot.com if you have a mind to.

Posted by: DouglasG at February 20, 2006 1:45 PM

Douglas, that is a cool link. I love the Mundane Manifesto. That is exactly what I am talking about. However, and I'm glad they recognize this, I love books with aliens and space travel in them. I know it is pure folly, but it is enjoyable to think about.

Posted by: Shane at February 20, 2006 1:57 PM

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