The big, big bang theory

Our universe is bigger and more incomprehensible than we ever imagined. A recent study increased the number of stars in place to about 300 sextillion. How many is that? Well, frankly, a lot.

Our universe is bigger and more incomprehensible than we ever imagined.

A recent study increased the number of stars in place to about 300 sextillion.

How many is that?

Well, frankly, a lot.

If the latest census is correct, there are now about three times more stars than scientists recently thought.

The old, smaller universe was so large it confounded efforts to comprehend its vastness.

Today … well, forget it.

And that, as we shall soon see, is a problem for some people.

Of course, for ordinary folk there’s no easy way to quantify such a figure.

Author Bill Bryson has done his best in his A Short History of Nearly Everything. And, while he does an excellent job, the whole effort still seems as comprehensible as binary code.

For example, the whole 300 sextillion stars came from a smattering of matter that was, well, very, very, very small. Much, much smaller than a proton, of which, Bryson notes, 500 billion would fit within this coming period.

And that first essence of the universe is believed to have been much smaller than that proton. A billionth the size, actually.

And now you are reeling and thinking about turning the page. Don’t.

We’re almost done.

See, something happened.

From that single mind-numbingly small bit of matter we got our entire universe. Wham!

In less than a minute, it was 1.6 million billion kilometres across (just think, “big”).

In just three minutes, 98 per cent of all matter that will ever exist within its boundaries was created.

“It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility,” wrote Bryson. “And beautiful, too. And it was all done in the time it takes to make a sandwich.”

As noted, it’s hard for most of us to comprehend.

But what of the scientists, who spend their lives contemplating such things?

Surely they have a glimmer of understanding of its majesty?


In fact, Pieter van Dokkum and Charlie Conroy’s census (they are the Yale University astronomer and Harvard astrophysicist who just wildly expanded the number of planets in the universe) has angered a lot of scientists, according to a recent New York Times story.

The hugely increased universe has made the place less orderly. It has upset the cosmological apple cart.

They thought they had a bead on it and, now, everything is more complicated than the scientists once believed. Their minds are reeling. They are unsettled.

Which kind of reflects the lives most of us live, doesn’t it.

Everything is a little more complicated than it seems. And we spend much of our time sifting through the details and figuring it out. School, relationships, work, that bookcase we just bought … it’s all so very hard to figure out.

But doing so may be our raison d’etre.

So, how many stars are 300 sextillion?

Hard to say, really. But great minds are working on it.

Their first attempt is to let us know that, in a weird coincidence, it’s about equal to the total number cells in all the people on Earth.

A coincidence that, for some odd reason, is both comforting and thought provoking.

The mind reels ….

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