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Thinking Out Loud

Feeling Very Small and Insignificant

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 16, 2015

Monty Python nerds like me will remember the lyrics to the "The Galaxy Song," but I'll share them with those of you who have done something more productive with your time than sitting around memorizing the musical antics of Trevor Jones and Eric Idle.*

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite enough,

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour.
It's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
The sun that is the source of all our power.
Now the sun, and you and me, and all the stars that we can see,
Are moving at a million miles a day,
In the outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars;
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side;
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from Galactic Central Point,
We go 'round every two hundred million years;
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

TOLImage031715If that doesn't make us feel small and insignificant, prepare to be dazzled by some facts not yet set to a musical score!

Two astronomers, Tsvi Piran (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Raul Jimenez (of the University of Barcelona) have been doing research on a phenomenon called gamma-ray burst (GRB). Their research is described in a recent article in the science and technology section of The Economist. A Gamma-ray burst is "the most energetic phenomenon yet discovered in the universe."**

No one knows exactly why these phenomena occur. The scientists hypothesize that they may be caused by the collapse of a really massive star during the formation of a black hole or the collision of two neutron stars, or by something else yet to be detected. But, as the essay states, "what is not in doubt is their prodigious power."

Get this! In most cases a gamma-ray burst "generates as much energy in a few seconds as a star will in its entire multi-billion-year lifetime."

The article focuses on the implications of these unimaginably powerful phenomena for any potential life-bearing planets in their neighborhood, given that such an explosion would pretty much wipe out everything around it. The scientists speculate that these destructive outbursts may be one reason we haven't heard from any more advanced intelligent life forms on other planets. But these speculations are not what took my breath away. What amazed me when I first read this story, and what still stops me in my tracks, is the next sentence in the article, stated with casual nonchalance: "Fortunately, GRBs are rare."

So, what's considered rare in universal terms?

"Satellites detect an average of one a day."

Given the size of the universe, and its "billions and billions of galaxies," as Carl Sagan once observed, that's reassuringly rare.

So, to recap: events of such magnitude that they produce more power in seconds than a star produces in its entire multi-billion-year lifetime and that can wipe out the existence of entire solar systems happen somewhere in the universe on an average of pretty nearly every day. Just to be clear, that's something over 365 times a year (even a non-mathematician can figure that out!), not just this year, and not just last year, and not just next year, but forever. And, at that rate, GRBs are pretty rare, because the universe is so huge.

Whether these facts inspire humility at the proportions of little old us in comparison with the UNIVERSAL EVERYTHING, or a deep conviction of ethical responsibility in the face of our own possible universal rarity as (well) relatively intelligent beings, or whether this information sets us to wondering at the teachings of Jesus Christ telling us that the Creator of all the numberless infinities numbers the hairs on our heads, if these facts don't inspire some sort of wonder, we need our theological imaginations repaired.

*"The Galaxy Song," written by Trevor Jones and Eric Idle, published EMI Music publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. Sung by Eric Idle in Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life."
**"Astrobiology: Bolts from the Blue," The Economist, October 18, 2014, pp. 81-82.

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