Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quadrillions and Quadrillions of stars...

I find it perverse and extremely arrogant of religion to insist that the entire universe was solely created to entertain/support humanity. That is an understandable viewpoint based on the knowledge level 2500 years ago, when it was thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and the whole thing was no bigger than the solar system, and no older than a few thousand years.

But after the findings of the last 200 years in cosmology, geology and physics, such a view is extremely difficult to comprehend. Have you ever looked at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image? They pointed the telescope at a tiny section of the sky (less 1/12,000,0000th of the entire sky) and took a picture (OK, slightly more complicated than that, but you get the idea). What they found was, for lack of a better word, magical. Over 10,000 galaxies, streching out over 13 billion lightyears of history, each one host to several billion stars.

Think about that for a minute. This was not a particularly interesting part of the sky they pointed at -- it was, in fact, fairly devoid of any visible light or known stellar objects. For all practical purposes, it was a blank, black bit of nothing to raise any interest. And yet . . . and yet. . .

10,000 visible galaxies, each with several billion stars. That alone is a staggering tens of TRILLION stars in that one image. But that image was just a random bit out of over 12.7 million possible bits of sky they could have looked at. There's no reason to think that it wasn't representative of the rest of the sky. Nor does it mean that those 10,000 galaxies seen by the Hubble were all that's in that little sliver of the heavens.

Think about it -- 12 million pieces of sky times ten thousand galaxies times several hundred billion stars per galaxy... That's a heck of a lot of stars! In fact, it's well over 200 sextillion of them. It's pretty much mind-blowing.

Let that number sink in a little bit -- 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

If the possibility of a sunlike star with a planetary nebula around it is extremely remote (say, 1 star out of every 1,000,000 happens to be like our solar system), that means there are approximately 200,000,000,000,000,000 "solar systems' out there. And if only 1 out of every 1,000,000 of those happens to have a planet in the "habitable zone", then there are only 200,000,000,000 possible 'earths'.

200 billion earth-like planets. How many of those will possibly have life? I don't know. But I wouldn't bet against the possibility.

Oh, and here's a little reality check on those solar/planetary probabilities. As you can see, I seriously UNDER-estimated the probabilities:

# of stars in typical galaxy: between 10 billion (dwarf galaxy) and one trillion (giant galaxies) (reference)

% of sunlike stars: ~10-20% of all stars (at least in the Milky Way Galaxy) (reference)

% of sunlike stars with rocky planets: ~5% (reference)


Now, think about all that for a few minutes, and then consider how reasonable and rational it is to think that all of that was solely for the sake of us humans on our little planet, with our thin smudge of organic life sloshing around on it. What possibly reason could there be to have trillions of galaxies out there that aren't visible or reachable? Why would any deity who could possibly conjure up a universe as vast and awesome as this one spend any time at all demanding blind obedience and servitude from a few billion slightly evolved apes?


Andrew said...

What do you mean by "religion"?

If you are refering to Christianity, it does not claim that the universe was created solely to support and/entertain humanity.

But what of it? A trillion stars don't have the self awareness of a single human being. Your equation of "lots and lots of things" with some kind of superiority is a non sequitur.

You are simply making philosophical statements disguised as "science".

A mountaim is much bigger than a few men, but a team of men with right tools can bring it down.

Heck, what reason could there be to have vast reaches that aren't visible or reachable?

Who says they will never be visible or reachable? Man was given a mind...oh wait, you believe the mind is a product of mindeless forces...that is capabable of apprehending and managing the mathematical order (an abstract mental concept in itself) of the material universe.

Your view that all existence is the product of mindless forces, including life and mind itself is what requires great faith.

Because you can't demonstrate that claim, not even in principle.

Go figure.

Chuck Lunney said...

Religion in this context means any "revealed truth" or faith based on such "revealed truth", most especially ones that are a significant majority in the USA (namely, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc).

All of them were started by people who had no concept of a universe larger than the solar system. Therefore, it was reasonable for them to imagine that they were unique or special. Now that we know how insignificant the earth is compared to the rest of the universe, it seems perverse to continue to insist that an extra-universal deity would have any significant or particular interest in our lives.

When I said they were unreachable and not visible, I was referring to the capabilities inherent to unaided humans. In other words, the people who wrote your cherished bible.

You say "a trillion stars don't have the self awareness of a single human". The point is, everywhere we've looked, deeper and deeper into the cosmos, we've found not only a greater number of stars and galaxies than expected, but also far more planets and potential life-sustaining locales than predicted even a few years ago.

Far from life being only possible here on earth, there are several potential places just in our solar system that have the potential to support some form of life.

As to the reason for the "vast reaches", I don't know. I don't think there is one -- the universe just "is". There's no purpose for it, and humanity (and all of life) are simply here because this is where we evolved. That doesn't mean that within our own small sphere of influence we aren't significant or justifiably important. But it's strange to imagine a deity who is supposed to have created the universe (with multiple quintillions of stars and galaxies) that would be concerned with the level of devotion of a few billion somewhat intelligent apes on a single planet, orbiting a generic star in the out spiral arm of a non-descript galaxy in a small galactic cluster.

Seems to be somewhat egotistical and arrogant to assume such prominence in a deity's priority list.

Chuck Lunney said...

By the way, I don't know if you still read Bill Tammeus' blog, but I'm going to be heading over to Borders at 91st and Metcalf on Saturday evening for a few hours. I want to try and meet with the "Goldstein Squad" (or at least Jim Christensen) to discuss Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth.

If you're interested, feel free to stop by between 6 and 9 PM. I'll be in the cafe.