The thing you don’t realize when you live in a city, or even the suburbs, or really anywhere, is how much space there is on this planet. Even though we have seven billion people, and trillions of other life forms, and 75% of the planet is water, and much of the land is uninhabitable, the earth is so big that it just doesn’t matter.
We could fit every human, standing side by side, into 17 square miles. It would be pretty tight, and there wouldn’t much room to stretch or do yoga, but we could make it work.
You see that square in southwest Kansas? That’s seventeen square miles.
Humans, however, don’t live two dimensionally. We live three dimensionally! We can stack people on top of each other. In fact, it *only* takes a building that’s 1.2 billion cubic meters to do this. In theory, we could build this thing. If we made it as tall as the Empire State Building (443 meters) and made the height and length about 52,000 meters, every human could fit inside of it. We could build it on Manhattan. Let’s add a really big air conditioner, too. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do this.
My point here is that there is a lot of space, and humans take up very little of it.
I was reminded of that on a drive out west last month. My friends and I drove from Denver to Vegas, with a stop in Zion National Park. First, we drove through the Rocky Mountains in Denver. I looked outside, and there was space:
Then we drove through Utah. More space.
Then we arrived at Zion National park. I hiked to the top of a canyon, sat down, and thought about how much space there was.
But as much space as we have on this planet, it doesn’t come close to how much space we have in our solar system. And you know what, our educational system doesn’t really do a good job of explaining that most of space is, well, space.
Here’s a typical map of our solar system that you might see at a school:
Look, I understand why the map is drawn like this. There isn’t enough room to draw the solar system to scale, because if it was, it would be really big, and 99.9% of it would be black, and schools don’t have enough money to show a map ten miles long with a few tiny dots on it. NONETHELESS, I would like for that to happen.
Thankfully, we have the internet. Here is website that shows the solar system to scale, if the moon were only 1 pixel. Take a scroll through to get a sense of how much nothing there is in our solar system.
Thing is, the solar system is pretty small in the grand scheme of things. There are 100 billion more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Look out a little farther, and you’ll see our sister, the Andromeda Galaxy*, which contains a trillion stars. Look out a little farther, and you’ll see hundreds of billions of other galaxies. Travel at light speed, and you’ll see it all in about 13.7 billion years.
*The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will collide in about 3.75 billion years. Should be fun!
We will never see most of the space in our universe, unless we become a Type IV civilization, which is probably not going to happen. See the gray blob below for an explanation of what this means.
Hello! Welcome to the gray blob. So, in 1964, Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev figured that civilizations can be categorized by the total amount of energy available to them. The Kardashev Scale, as it is called, now lists 7 levels of civilizations based on their power consumption, and implicitly on their technological advancement and extension.
TYPE 0: A civilization that harnesses the energy of its home planet, but not to its full potential just yet. This is where we are right now.
TYPE I: A civilization that is capable of harnessing the total energy of its home planet. We may get there in 100-200 years.
TYPE II: An interstellar civilization, capable of harnessing the total energy output of a star. This is the next stage in the evolution of a civilization, and presumes a level of technological development that allows for gigantic constructions (like Dyson structures) and utmost efficiency.
TYPE III: A galactic civilization, capable of inhabiting and harnessing the energy of an entire galaxy. Such a civilization would use planets like building blocks, being able to move planets from one solar system to other, merge solar systems, merge stars, absorb supernovae, and even create stars. The galaxy is their playground, and everything in it becomes a toy. It would be pretty cool.
TYPE IV: A universal civilization, capable of harnessing the energy of the whole universe. This civilization would be supergalactic, able to travel throughout the entire universe and consume the energy output of several, or all, galaxies. A Type IV civilization could also manipulate space-time and tinker with entropy, thus reaching immortality on a grand scale. This would be an indestructible and highly utopian civilization.
But we’re not done yet…
TYPE V: A multiverse culture, capable of harnessing the energy of multiple universes. It would span countless parallel universes, being able to manipulate the very structure of reality.
We’re STILL NOT DONE.
TYPE VI: Exists outside of time and space, and is capable of creating universes and multiverses, and destroying them just as easily. At this point, we are God.
When I look at the night sky on a clear night, and I think about space, I feel…something. You know what I mean? It’s like a bit of wonder and profound sadness at the same time. I kinda freak out. I ponder about our place in the universe, and whether we will ever understand the scope or complexity of it all. Spoiler alert: we won’t. And that’s fine. Then I go home and forget about it and eat some ice cream.
But I think it is important to think about these things. It is important not to ignore the universe. So I look at space – the open road, a national park, the night sky – and I just sit quietly, and I think, this is all frikkin weird and crazy.
And sometimes I just there and I don’t think about anything. To quote the Australian rocker Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.