Monday, October 17, 2016

How Much?

Powers of ten. I get that. stacking up zeroes after a digit and counting them makes real-life sense to me in terms of what my world has to offer. Most of the time, however, my life centers on things that don't rise much past that second power. Hundreds of kids. Dozens of choices. Scores that hover somewhere below that cutoff of one thousand. I can imagine things that come in thousands, but they are almost always grouped by those nice safe hundreds.
Way back when I took physics in high school, I was asked to consider things with magnitudes far in excess of that relatively small threshold. Forces of nature that needed to be described, or speeds. Most of my experience with speed kept me well within my comfort zone of ten to the first or second power. Then there was the speed of sound. Three hundred forty meters each second. In a minute? In an hour? Sound has a speedy cousin named light, and it's zipping around at three million meters per second. Powers of ten faster than the noise it made. How can this be? The TV is sitting just a few meters away, but I'm almost certain that the light and the sound are landing on me at the same time. How can this make sense? Only if I can imagine how big a living room I would have to be in for it to make a difference.
NASA likes to deal with the really big numbers. They're kind of showoffs in that way. They would like us to know that there are two trillion observable galaxies in our universe. That's twelve zeroes. Those NASA guys like to pile it on. Since there are seven billion souls on this planet, give or take, we don't currently have enough astronauts to go and visit them, this really feels like one of those science exhibition of cleverness. Not that anyone is sitting around in an office down in Cape Canaveral counting galaxies. They're doing math junk like approximating and estimating. They probably even use computers and junk to help them. If you happen to be a human working on your own, counting to a trillion would take you 31,709 years. By the time you got around to two trillion, a lot of those stars would have winked out, exploding with forces best described by these titanic numbers with units that remind of us of those brainiac physicists who seem to make their hay out of stretching our view of the world in which we live. Our universe.
Back in my neighborhood, I'm still numbering things by the dozens. Cars, people, trash cans. These are the things I can see in my observable universe. That's a close enough look for me.

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