5 Things I Have Learned About Space
Greetings! Welcome to the first weekly newsletter of 2022. This newsletter is available for every subscriber, and will come out most Wednesdays this year. In addition, each month, the final week will be set aside for a Monthly Q&A. I will answer YOUR questions and ask a few of my own. Please consider asking me a question about… well, anything really… and I will do my best to answer. This month’s Q&A will be released on January 26. The sooner you ask your question, the greater the chance I will have to answer. I will pick a few of the best to share with everyone at the end of the month. To ask your question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope you enjoy this week’s update!
When Willie was very small (before he was diagnosed with autism) he was part of a therapeutic playgroup with other kids. The kids would engage in play, sometimes with prompting by the therapists, and there was an observation room with a two-way mirror that allowed the parents to watch what was happening. Barb and I, being Barb and I, started asking the other parents about their kids. I asked one dad (jokingly of course) what his kid was "in for." All the parents said autism. We talked to the lead therapist after one such group and asked why Willie was in a group with kids with autism. She explained that Willie had a "commonality of symptoms" with the other kids, and that is why this group had been chosen.
Sometimes that's the way life is. You may not have a thing, but you can certainly share a commonality of symptoms with those that do. Not everyone I met before Covid had a major life trauma, and there may be some of them who still see it that way. Despite that belief, our collective life the last few years means that all of us share a commonality of symptoms.
We have all been through trauma. We are all actively moving through trauma. One of the things that we all have in common is that the last few years have been challenging as hell.
Social distancing is hard. Even for introverts. Barb and I haven't seen our best couple friends Pete and Amy in over two years. Two years. It is hard to even imagine that. We miss them. Lots.
Lizzie is a junior and has yet to do a full year of high school on campus and in person. Justin's class had to do a 10 day quarantine the first month of kindergarten. We went a year without being able to see Willie. We could only watch Matthew graduate from basic training on a screen, half a continent away.
With Omicron now among us, there is every indication that we are in for another wave to crash on us. More sickness. More isolation. More trauma.
A commonality of symptoms.
It feels unrelenting at times. All of it. And while we all experience the trauma in different ways, and express it in different ways, the challenge is the same.
And. There is something else we all share. Another common symptom. Resilience. Grit. Determination. Whatever name you want to give it. It is the belief that if you put one foot in front of the other, take the next step, do the next right thing, that eventually you will find your way clear of the mess.
The sky is mostly dark. It just makes the light of the stars even more dazzling.
On to this week’s update…
When it comes to bad, challenging news there are lots of options to choose from. It could be the wildfires devastating Colorado, a place I love but have never been. I fell in love just by seeing pictures. Climate change is the story of our life now. It is part of who we are. So too, is Covid. And the Omicron variant seems to be the worst we have seen.
There were a lot of crazy things happening to end the year, but there were two very good things as well. Justin turned 6 and Willie turned 23, and we were lucky enough to get to share their special days with them. The Xmas / birthday / New Year's gauntlet is always an end of year sprint, but seeing these guys take another step on their journey was a real blessing. Plus, there was cake. Twice.
Picture of the Week
5 Things I Have Learned About Space
Justin loves space.
Let me clarify that statement. Justin loves space like Ron Swanson loves bacon and eggs.
So, when I say that Justin loves space, I am concerned that what you are hearing is that Justin likes space stuff. Not exactly. Justin wants ALL space. All the time.
His room is now decorated in space themed stuff. He has space bed sheets, a rocket lamp, a full glow in the dark solar system on one wall and a giant solar system tapestry on the other wall. He has dozens of books about space, including his prize possession - a copy of the Smithsonian guide to the universe that we got him for Christmas. The book weighs a metric ton and is written at what feels like graduate level. And the documentaries. We have watched Nova and National Geographic videos on what feels like a permanent loop. Barb and I have started a game where we decide which of our friends the astronomers interviewed most remind us of.
It has been a lot. Justin loves space.
Through Justin's love (and hours of documentaries and lots of reading), I have learned all sorts of things that I never knew about space. And some of them have been truly fascinating. And resonant.
Here it is. The 5 Things I Have Learned About Space.
1. You are the center of the universe.
There is a whole lot that we don't know about our universe. We don't know what shape it is. We don't know what lies beyond our line of sight (the "observable" universe). Most of the universe is composed of dark matter. We don't know what that it.
What we do know is that we have evidence that the universe is expanding. And we know that it extends for 46 billion light years in every direction around us.
Every direction. That means that, in a very real and literal sense, you are the center of the universe. There is no fixed place where the universe began. There is no roadside marker, dented and dirty, that says "Big Bang happened here 13.8 billion years ago." There is no gift shop. As far as we know.
The universe is all around us, unimaginably big and getting bigger. And you are at the center of it. The nexus of the entire universe lies in your immediate proximity.
That, to me, is remarkable.
2. You are made of stars.
13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. You know, you may have visited that gift shop. In the wake of this event, space material (gasses and fundamental elements) littered the cosmos and formed something called the cosmic web. This web was the building blocks for the first and truly giant stars. These stars quickly burned their fuel and went supernova, scattering star dust across the universe.
Some 4.6 billion years ago some of this star dust began accreting in our spot in the Milky Way galaxy. It formed our sun. And it formed the planets that would find their way into that star's orbit. Everything that existed on those planets - everything that exists in the universe - is hewn from the dust from exploding stars, reformed and reshaped into something new. Again, and again.
You are made of actual stars. You are hewn together from the same elements that trace their history back to the dawn of time.
You are made of stars. Let that sink in for a minute.
3. What you see as current reality is old news.
I have a brain injury. That means that over the last decade or so I have had my brain imaged and tested multiple times. I have met with teams of neurologists. I have learned a lot about how the brain works. As much as anyone can, I guess.
One of my favorite brain facts is that it takes a tiny fraction of a second for your brain to register sensory input. Then it needs a few more microseconds to process that input. That means that we are constantly behind reality. Everything that happens to you has, in a very real sense, already happened.
Say that you stub your toe. You recognize instantly that you have once again worn open toed shoes and hit that one corner of the bed. You know the one. And you instantly begin to feel the throbbing pain in your toe. Only... it's not instant. You stubbed your toe microseconds before you feel it. Reality has already happened. You are just catching up.
The same thing is true of almost everything we know about space. Look up in the sky at night. Every single one of those stars is millions of light years away. We look at the light of one star and think that we are seeing it as it is. We aren't. It has taken millions of years for that light to get to us. We are seeing it as it was millions of light years ago. What does it actually look like now?
Whether it is our brains, or distant galaxies, what we call reality is something that has already happened.
4. The multiverse isn't just a Marvel thing.
So. 13.8 billion years ago the Big Bang happened and our universe began to expand. This theory has been borne out by every scientific observation of the universe. While there are still lots of things we don't know, scientists are as sure as scientists can be about this.
What we don't know is what things were like before the Big Bang, or what kinds of conditions would create it. One of the leading theories suggest that there was something akin to an energy field, but one with unique properties. It could grow AND maintain its density - it could get older but keep its youthful figure. And the Big Bang caused it to get big quickly. Very quickly. So quickly, in fact, that it would have caused all sorts of off shoots.
Imagine that you are trying to blow a bubble with old fashioned bubble solution and one of those awful plastic wands that you always seem to drop in the plastic bottle and then have to dig out with soapy fingers. Say you want to blow the biggest bubble you can. Have you ever tried it? No matter how careful or skillful a bubble blower you are, you can't blow one perfect, large bubble. There are smaller bubbles that come first, or come after, or hang off the side of the wand. Every one of those bubbles is made of the same stuff as the big one you are trying to blow.
That's what most likely happened in the Big Bang. But only at a massive scale. And every single one of those bubbles became a universe. There may be an infinite number of universes, all slightly different. There is a universe where you didn't get that job, where 9/11 didn't happen, where you never met your true love, where cake is a health food and where Donald Trump is a nice guy.
The multiverse is most likely an actual thing.
5. Our existence is a miracle.
There may be infinite universes. And in this one, it feels like there are infinite stars. There are billions and billions of galaxies, each one with billions and billions of stars. We as a species have only been here for about 300k of the earth's 4.5-billion-year history. And we have only been capable of space travel for the last 60 or so years of that history. Given all those stars and our inexperience in exploring them, it seems that finding other life forms is a question of when, not if.
Scientists believe only about 15% of the stars in our galaxy have planets. And only around 500 appear to have solar systems like ours. Even fewer have planets in the habitable zone close enough to draw heat and energy from their star (or stars) but far enough away to not be consumed by that same heat and energy.
Even the planets that exist in or near that habitable zone must have everything line up perfectly. Consider this - at one point about a billion or so years into the history of our solar system, Earth, Mars and Venus probably all had liquid water oceans. As our sun's energy output increased, however, Venus' water began to evaporate. At the same time, the increased gravitational pull of the sun activated the volcanoes that cover the Venusian landscape. The skies of Venus filled with volcanic gas and evaporated water, causing a runaway greenhouse effect. The water was soon gone, the planet scorched. Now the temperatures on the surface of Venus hover around 900 degrees.
Mars was at the opposite extreme. Close enough to have enough warmth to maintain liquid water, Mars wasn't quite big enough to be able to maintain a more robust atmosphere. It couldn't keep enough of the heat and energy from the sun. The water was there. Then it wasn't.
Maintaining liquid water, and doing so over a long period of time, turns out to be an incredibly difficult and complex thing. And without liquid water, there is no life.
There is a non-zero chance that this is it. We may be the only life in the universe. At least that we have any hope of ever seeing.
The truth is that our existence is a miracle. The fact that we are here boggles the imagination. The fact that there is something and not nothing is in itself mind-blowing.
You are here. You are a miracle made of stars. There may be times that you feel insignificant or unimportant or less than. Goodness knows I feel that way sometimes. And all that the world has thrown at us the last few years has made us all feel that way at different times.
Two things can be true at the same time. Things can be hard. Things are hard.
You are a starry fucking miracle. Don't ever for one minute forget that.
Thanks for reading y'all.
Have a great rest of the week. Be well.
And keep pounding the rock.
I love it, especially the gift shop 😊
I love the five things you have selected, Jeff. Truly remarkable stuff. We talk about the miracle of life, particularly related to childbirth. How even conception needs just the right conditions. And those conditions have to adjust and maintain for about 9 months. And that is (usually) a single life. One birth.
And that happened on Earth on a cosmic scale. From the first little microbe that turned into the planet full of life we have now. All those species of plant and animal life. And us. I have a greater appreciation for how unique and miraculous Earth is.
I have two questions anyone can respond to, and I hope you (Jeff) will consider for your Q&A.
1. When in your life have you felt cosmic - you felt your connection to the universe, to "the force" as you sense it?
2. When in your life have you felt so small and seemingly (though not actually) insignificant, alone, like a solitary little microbe in an infinite ocean of life?