Entertainment/culture Physics Science Television

The scale of it all

If you ever want to get a sense of the scale of the universe and how insignificant our little planet is compared to the scope of it all, here’s something really cool to put things in perspective, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

It’d be really cool if it were physically possible to travel that fast and see what this video shows. It really is amazing, this universe of ours.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

28 replies on “The scale of it all”

I was sent a link to this video a few weeks ago. It really is a wonderful piece. It gives a really good perspective of our own size in relation to the universe and the wonder of it all. Well worth the few minutes to view.

Nice video but the opening scene from the movie Contact is pretty amazing as well!

Great video. I too liked the opening of Contact. At least this one is easily accessible. Thanks!

Pretty cool. Pleased both me and my almost 3-year-old who demanded “Again!” several times.

Truly amazing. I have a serious question instead of all the irritating back and forth banter that really is mostly juist for fun (although I do learn a lot..would love continuing ed credits for reading Orac)

I have little (no?) experience reading about the skeptical movement with regard to the question of “are we alone?” and I’d like to hear the skeptical take on that. A serious one please. There’s obviously no evidence that life exists elsewhere but I mean, really, look at the size of the universe and, well, there probably is, right? I personally think there is but have no way of proving it.

Would the skeptical community defintively say there is no life out there due to the lack of evidence. I kinda guess so but I know you guys are lot smarter than that. But I really don’t know what you’d say or is there no consensus?

This is an honest question and I think it’d be a great way to learn more about your point of view. Because, typically, all I read from the skeptical movement are harsh attacks on things that mean a lot to me and just about everyone I perosnally know that force a lot of defensive posturing. But please, for my own edidfication fill me in on the thoughts regarding the question “are we alone?”

Is it an open space is it as cut and dry, yes/no, black/white as so many of the other things that are discussed here.

I’d like to hear about this one then we can go back to beating the shit out of each another time.

Thank You Orac. My son sat on my lap and kept clicking on ‘replay’. These are the best times, when we sit quietly together. It is just like when we watched ‘The Elegant Universe’ together (for three days strait).

He is obsessed with the universe and physics.

I started thinking immediately about a passage from “Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy”. It went something like this: “The universe is really, really hugely big. You wouldn’t believe how big it is…”

I’ve had a science fiction universe kicking around in my head for years and this is very, very relevant to a plot line I’ve been considering lately. A civilization that somehow broke the light barrier would have some very interesting mapping problems…

Very nice – all it needs is the detail of two humans knocking seven bells out of each other on top of the Himalayas, and we’ll know we’re home.


Fair enough question, but perhaps there’s a misunderstanding of skepticism implied in your post? Speaking for me; as a skeptic I need sufficient evidence to support certain claims that are beyond what I can reasonably hope to support with my own knowledge and experience. However this does not mean I cannot make a value judgement on something based on that experience or knowledge – would I assert that there is life on other planets? No, I have no evidence that there is. However, given the vastness of the known universe as evidenced in the wonderful video in this thread, it would seem unlikely that there isn’t.

You suggest that things get a little heated here – again, speaking for me; the reason for this is not necessarily that as a skeptic I see things in black or white or that I am necessarily more arrogant than the next person, it is that most of what is discussed here is the debunking of woo for which there is no evidence (or rather the evidence does not meet suitable standards or rigor) and in fact for which there is a large amount of (well constructed and supported) evidence to refute said woo. As a skeptic I then find it frustrating that people will choose to ignore the evidence and support the woo. I find this especially frustrating when said woo might cause death or injury or psychological harm or someone is making a fortune of the back of someone’s suffering by woo peddling.

Dr W: IMHO, this expresses the current state of knowledge pretty well. Space, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is big. We have no evidence of life and especially not intelligent life anywhere else in the universe yet. But we can hardly say we’ve throughly explored it all as of yet. Now, if you want my uninformed speculation…

Life, per se, may be no further than Titan or Europa. I’d love to see NASA or ESA or someone send a probe off to the moons of one of the gas giants to look for microscopic life. It’d be uber cool if we found it. Plus we’d get a second data point on how life might manage itself. All life on earth uses protein, DNA, and/or RNA. But this is surely not the only possible arrangement. What else might carry the complex information necessary for life?

But as to whether there’s intelligent or even macroscopic life out there, we may never know. The universe is expanding and its expansion is accelerating so that (if I understand correctly-and I may not) there are parts of the universe we will never be able to perceive because they are simply too far away: light will never get here from there or vice versa. So James T Kirk could be off having adventures with Anikin Skywalker somewhere in a far corner of the universe and we’d never know it. President Beeblebrox will never make a campaign stop at Earth if the seat of government is out there. It’s just too far away. On the other hand, the lizard people won’t be invading from there either and we don’t have to worry about finding out it’s a cookbook.

Another problem is that even if there is intelligent life closer-say, in the same galaxy-it still may be too far away to be of any practical value. How are we going to get close enough to exchange information within the lifetime of individuals of either species if they’re, say, 1000 light years away? We might catch their equivalent of early radio and TV and maybe learn quite a bit about them, but interacting is likely to be impossible. And more advanced or sensible species may already have given up on the whole idea of space travel.

So my guess is that there may or may not be life elsewhere in the universe but I seriously doubt that it will ever be relevant to humans.

I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but here are my thoughts:

The question of life on other worlds is better broken down into “life” versus “intelligent life.” Given the known vastness of space and time, it seems highly probable that something that would meet a reasonable definition of life (even within the generally carbon-centric limits of our collective imaginations) has occured or currently exists. It’s not even unreasonable that such may be found on our next door neighbor Mars if & when we determine the source of its methane. Life on other worlds seems quite probable.

However, intelligent life is likely far less probable given a few considerations…”intelligence” is a complex spectrum, and high-intelligence problem-solving (as narcissistic humans would describe it) is a remarkably uncommon evolutionary outcome on this planet, the only one we’re sure has ever had life. It may well be that technological intelligence is only a rarely-successful niche elsewhere as well. One also wonders if this level of intelligence, which likely produces the capacity for self-destruction (think mutually-assured destruction and the like), is commonly/ultimately self-limiting.

Given the vastness of space and time, its reasonably probable that technological civilizations on the order of current human capabilities and beyond have and currently do exist. However, that vastness makes it entirely unlikely that such civilizations exist(ed) in a locale and time-frame amenable to any contact with humans.

As for UFOs and other assorted, purported alien contact…the improbability of the occurance of advanced technological civilizations within the space-time-frame of human existence has not been overcome by the existence of a few weird stories and blurry photographs, in my opinion.

However, intelligent life is likely far less probable given a few considerations…”intelligence” is a complex spectrum, and high-intelligence problem-solving (as narcissistic humans would describe it) is a remarkably uncommon evolutionary outcome on this planet, the only one we’re sure has ever had life. It may well be that technological intelligence is only a rarely-successful niche elsewhere as well.

I’m not sure about this. A number of animals have been documented to have self-awareness (i.e. other primates, elephants, dolphins, possibly others). Tool use is not terribly uncommon either: see chimps, otters, etc. So getting to the point of self-awareness seems to be, evolutionarily speaking, not all that hard.

True, only one species has evolved to the point of complex technology but is that because it was the only one that could or because it was the first, filled the niche, and prevented others from getting to the same point? Again, with only one data point it’s just hard to know.

My point there, Dianne, is that while we could both rattle off a dozen or more species that have been shown to demostrate some problem-solving ability or self-awareness, those species represent a tiny fraction of the varieties of life on this planet (however you might measure it across space & time). High intelligence is a very sparsely-poulated end of the “intelligence spectrum” on Earth. This makes sense when the energy requirements of complex intelligence are weighed in an evolutionary model: brains are expensive to run. [That said, what might constitute the “brain”–the physical medium through which alien intelligence derives–could be beyond imagination and be the subject of wildly different selective pressures in another Darwinian world.]

We both agree, however, that an n of one planet with known life (thus far) is an important caveat when postulating about the possible patterns of life on other worlds. Since it’s the only data we’ve got, though, it’ll have to do!

I agree scientizzle. Though I would point out that we don’t have a lot of data on the intelligence of extinct animals. Maybe there were self-aware dinosaurs? If we could work that out, we might at least get an idea of whether mid-level intelligence (self-awareness, simple tool use) is a niche that is likely to be available and filled in any sufficiently complex system or if it’s just a weird little thing that popped up with mammals (and therefore is less likely to occur elsewhere.) Of course, another assumption being made is that self-awareness and the ability to use sticks as tools are necessary steps for the development of intelligence high enough to develop space faring technology. Maybe it could, in principle, all happen quite rapidly?

“True, only one species has evolved to the point of complex technology …”
Also don’t forget that, up to ca. 10K years ago, “technology” was linited to stone and wood.

Thank you all. I did learn a lot and again find that I again agree with much of what you’ve said. We’ll likely never agree on chiropractic, although I think you defintitely could meet us halfway if you were even willing, but it was nice to learn about your perspective of this question which I assumed we both had.

Yeah, really, though there has to be other life out there and what an wonderful experience it would be if we find it in our lifetime.

Also don’t forget that, up to ca. 10K years ago, “technology” was linited to stone and wood.

Good point. Again, we’ve got the “one data point” problem-actually, we have ZERO data points: we know how long humans have had relatively high technology (high tech here being defined as metalworking and pottery in this case), but we don’t know how long it will last. So suppose highly intelligent life with major technology arose elsewhere in the universe. Would it last long enough for us to contact it? Will we last long enough to contact it? Then again, would it be human-like enough for us to care? (Or would we be alien-like enough for them to care?)

Ok, just to throw out a last idea: what if we’re not intelligent enough to make it to contact? Maybe our ability to make rockets and solar system probes is sort of like chimp’s ability to use blades of grass to get ants: interesting, a sign of intelligence, but not really enough to think that they’ll ever be inventing the internet or the atomic bomb or whatever. So maybe we need another “great leap forward” in brain power before we have any chance of finding out if there is other intelligent life out there or not.

It’s true, Dianne, that some long-gone species such as dionsaurs may also fit a descriptor of “intelligent” however one might define it. Given how remarkable some bird species are at problem-solving, it wouldn’t surprise me one iota.

It’s all a fascinating and fun–for me at least–thought experiment. Per Dianne @25, it may be that the form and structure of the chordate nervous system has an upper limit to its processing & computing capabilities; such a limit may only, in the future, be sidestepped by mind-machine interfaces or genetic engineering…Chordata has been around since the Cambrian, and there’s 500 million years of genetic information contributing to the development and function of our brains. Some of that genetic foundation may be sufficiently calcified so as to inhibit sea change-like shifts in structure & function that might be necessary for that great leap.

If highly intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe it’s extremely improbable that their sensory & computational anatomy is subject to the same limitations as our own due to the separate evolutionary histories. Consider this another round of our recursive n = 1 problem!

It has taken roughly 3.5 billion years (of life on earth) for us to reach this point, and for all but 600 million of those years (2.9 billion) the most complex life on earth was largely bacteria. Chance has played a special role in us reaching this point, as well. It is unlikely that we would be here if it wasn’t for the extinction of the dinosaurs, for example.

But there are so many possibilities — 100-200 billion stars in the average galaxy, and a similar numbers of galaxies in the known universe — and we are already finding planets that are of a similar size and composition and distance from their host star as the earth. However, we also know that life can exist and even thrive in far worse conditions than we had previously thought possible: in rock miles underground, without any sunlight, whatsoever, as well as at the bottom of very deep oceans, and in acidic conditions that would instantly kill most of life on earth. Whether life could get started in those conditions is informed by the fact that it did get started on earth in very different conditions than we find today.

So, the chances are good, but we might never actually find any for all of the reasons stated by others, already. Given that the nearest star is roughly 4 light years away, and the speed of light is roughly 300,000 km/s, a very different kind of travel would need to be found for us to reach even the closest star to us. Some physicists do believe that it might be possible in the future, however. And that is why it is so unlikely that we have been visited by anything from elsewhere, also.

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