Image via WikipediaSpeaking from personal experience, cable TV provides the opportunity to watch programming that is such a waste of space and time, and which is truly brain-numbing, for example Jersey Shore. Fortunately it also allows us to watch great documentaries that are the very opposite, such as Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, a Science Channel documentary television series narrated by actor Morgan Freeman. Morgan’s involvement came about from his interest in the universe, space and the big philosophical questions: who created the universe; is there life out there beyond TV land, and what happened before the big bang? Someone lit the blue touch-paper presumably.
Watching it the other day, it occurred to me that certain phrases on this and similar programs get bandied around quite a bit. For example, the building blocks of life, that favorite of astro-biologists. And no, it’s not a gigantic Lego set for grown-ups. Then there’s the whole space-time continuum thing. I certainly don’t profess to understand it all, but I do know this. When Einstein stuck his hand in the electric socket, frizzy hair wasn’t his only problem. After all, anyone who tries to explain The General Theory of Relativity (one of the greatest theories in theoretical physics, which describes how gravity affects the shape of space and flow of time) by imagining a bowling-ball and a bed-sheet must have had his brains fried. You see space-time is multi-dimensional, the three standard dimensions plus time. Whilst we think we can understand the concept in our minds, it’s an extremely difficult concept describe pictorially. Pen and paper only have two dimensions.
Then there is the “very fabric of space”, and finally the cliché about there being “more stars in the Universe than all the grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth”. Say what? You must have heard this quote; it gets trotted out quite regularly. But what is its derivation? How did this phrase become the defining measure of the size of the universe? After all, very big doesn’t quite cut it. Holy cow that’s really, really big tries in vain, bloody massive is getting there. Nope, we just have to accept that the Universe truly is of infinite size, and pretty much outside of our comprehension.
There are people who have attempted to prove the “more stars than” quote. Yes, I know, get a life. Calculations like these are the astro-nerd (also known as astro-gnomes?) idea of a good time. A number of studies have been made, more back of an envelope than PhD level calculations, and some fairly serious assumptions have to be made regarding the sand side and the star side. But surprise, or no surprise, it looks like the stars win out by a factor, of up to 100 times depending on the calculations. This is quite incredible isn’t it? But there’s more.
Not only is the actual number of stars and galaxies impossible to comprehend, but it may actually be an underestimate. How you might ask. Well, in March this year Discovery News announced that astronomers could have miscounted the number of galaxies in some areas of the universe by as much as 90%. Hold on a minute, how could this happen? Apparently it’s all to do with wavelengths, light blocked by interstellar clouds of dust and gas, looking through the wrong light and using the wrong prism, or something. Who knew? Bet you didn’t know we’d lost it did you? Now then Jenkins, where’s the missing part of the Universe? Don’t know sir, perhaps my dog ate it. What’s odd though is that astronomers claim that they knew this all along. Really, that’s so lame. Imagine counting the stars, then the door bell rings. You go back to the study, damn, what number did I get to? A whole lifetime’s work, gone with the ding-dong, there goes this year’s Nobel Prize.
If economists are often referred to as practicing a dismal science, what should we call astronomers? How about Astronomes Seeking The Real Overall Number of Massive Errantly Recorded Stars?