Mercury and the fight against nihilism

Thank God we finally have color pictures of this!

Thank God we finally have color pictures of this!  Images in this post from nasa.gov

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one abundantly excited when the space probe MESSENGER came back with the first ever pictures of the planet Mercury taken from the planet’s orbit.  I’ve been a bit of an astronomy junkie for years now, with all the ups and downs that brings, and I’m always mystified when scientists send us back reports of incredibly bizarre things happening in other parts of our galaxy.  My favorite so far is the star known as BPM 37093, a former white dwarf star that caved in on itself a horribly long time ago to become the largest diamond ever discovered.  In an infinitely large universe, anything is possible, I suppose.

I first got into astronomy in high school when I took a basic level class that taught the locations of constellations and the myths they were named for, as well as light spectrums, other astral bodies like comet and meteors, and (unfortunately for me) distance. This information has largely seeped out of me over the years to the point where I can identify simple constellations and objects, but the distance…  the distance stuck with me.

This is an image of a galaxy, around 850 million light years away from earth, that is getting devoured by a super massive black hole.  B... better them than us, right?

This is an image of a galaxy, around 850 million light years away from earth, that is getting devoured by a super massive black hole.  This is, luckily for us, an abominably long way away.

It took me several years to really wrap my head around the numbers.  Light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach us, which is a neat frame of reference if you’re going to be mucking around in deep space distances.  The next closest star to us is Alpha Centauri, which is located about 4.37 light years away from our meager little star.  That’s about 41.5 trillion km, which also translates into miles somehow but I’m bad at math so you’re on your own there.

This means a ship traveling at the speed of light will take 4.37 years to reach Alpha Centauri.  I think we can make it to other planets in our solar system in about that time, but to my knowledge NASA never went ahead with the project.  Want to drive a guy insane?  Throw him into space in a high risk, probably one way trip to another planet, letting him know full well he’ll probably never come back again and if he somehow manages, it’ll take the better part of a decade.

And Alpha Centauri is the closest system to us.  Don’t even get me started on the distance to other galaxies, either, because that’s so huge they had to come up with another friggin’ word for it.  Some of these stars…  some of them have burnt out billions of years ago.  Billions.  But you’d never know it from Earth, because it’s taking the light that long to make its way here.

The Butterfly Nebula!  Pretty, isn't it?  It's also a fiery death storm you probably aren't going to want to get caught in.

The Butterfly Nebula! Pretty, isn’t it? It’s also a fiery death storm you probably aren’t going to want to get caught in.

When the MESSENGER images of Mercury came back, however, it hammered home the fact that the universe is very, horribly, terrifyingly large, and the vast majority of it is dead, and lifeless. The planet is so hot and barren, color pictures of it turned out in black and white anyway.  Many, if not most, planets in our galaxy are like that:  toxic, hot or frozen wastelands unable to support life.

That’s not to say all of them are like that.  I have no doubt there is life on other planets.  There’s simply too much space out there for the impossibly low odds of life forming on a planet with similar conditions to ours to not happen again.  But, wherever this other civilization may be, there’s even less of a chance that they’ll develop to the point where they’ll be able to interact with us in any meaningful way.  The distances are too great.  It can be pretty depressing, when you think about it.  So much space, with so much potential.

New stars are still being formed in the Large Magellanic Cloud, orbiting our galaxy just 200,000 light years away.  Fun fact: If you go here, you will die.

New stars are still being formed in the Large Magellanic Cloud, orbiting our galaxy just 200,000 light years away. Fun fact: If you go here, you will die.

But still, I guess I’ve taken some comfort in that fact, though.  For years, a clear night sky has been refreshing.  No matter how big your problems may be, they don’t even register at all in the larger scheme of things.

That might sound nihilistic, but I think it’s a great way to put things in perspective.  You think you have problems?  Somewhere out there, right now, you have entire stars being devoured by black holes, going nova and wiping out planets, meteors peppering planetary bodies so hard that if there was any life on the planet, it has long since been erased.  You have particles crashing into planets at just under the speed of light, and planetary atmospheres that are made of pure poison, with gravity so thick it could crush you into paste in an instant.  Everything in between is cold, hard vacuum in which no life can survive.

Next time you say "stop the planet, I want off," try to think where, exactly, you'd rather be.

Next time you say “stop the planet, I want off,” try to think where, exactly, you’d rather be.

Worrying about only having $30 until payday, or if your new puppy is crapping on the rug, is pretty simple, by comparison.  Life can be pretty hard, but at least we, miraculously and against all probability, have the opportunity to live here, on this planet.  We have the luxury to get mad when our internet service goes out or someone posts something nasty about you on Facebook, to worry about work, to be sad and happy and angry and apathetic about the big and little things going on in our day-to-day lives.

Even at our worst, we still have it better than Mercury.

47 Comments

  1. Very interesting post! Enjoyed reading. I often look to the sky and try, with all my little brain watts, to fathom the kind of literal space I’m looking at up there. We’re constantly surrounded by serious distance and, somewhere, in any direction, something absolutely breathing-taking, awe-inspiring, horribly frightening could be happening. Sometimes I think that we’re hard-wired to not be concious of space like that. Even if one were to know about the distances to other floating rocks or about the probabilty of being wiped-out by gamma rays by a hypernova — it’s still… just space. Even if it takes a night’s rest to come back to Earth. We always tend to. I mean, I suppose that seems obvious that we would, what else would we do, right? But, I mean, really… just all that space. And most of us hardly take a second glance.

    • There’s a lot we take for granted on this crazy planet of ours. Like breathable air. And complex plant life. And not being instantly incinerated in a horrendous death storm of fire. I do wish it was possible to visit other planets or galaxies like in the bad sci-fi shows I’m addicted to, but alas, that doesn’t seem probable.

      • You’re absolutely right. We take so much for granted even on Earth. And, boy, do I wish, too, that I could visit other planets and galaxies — I have a small glimmer of hope that before I die, I just might! But, I think I’m just a very hopefuly person… obviously. Lol. SMALL glimmer… but a glimmer, nonetheless. By the way, which shows might you be talking about? I might actually like some of those bad sci-fi shows. I’ve been wanting tune in to watch Defiance, but I’m too spoiled these days with, say, Netflix… no commercials, I could pause, no need to wait a week for another episode — it’s great.

      • Ha, yeah I know what you mean. I wish I could go out there and see it all. It’s one thing to read about gigantic diamonds the size of a star, but it’s quite another to actually be able to see it. If NASA is ever in the market for some volunteers to head up into space, I’ll be around.
        Bad sci-fi shows! I also use Netflicks for my TV watching ways… I don’t think I’ve had cable in like… six years? Or so? Anyway, I plowed through most of the Dr. Who they have on there, and I was watching Battlestar Galactica for a while but I’ve taken a bit of a break from it. I really should go back and finish it. A friend of mine tried to get me to watch Lexx, but that was WAY too weird, and was kind of… brain friendly? I also tried watching Sliders, because I like the premise, but once again I stopped watching once I couldn’t handle the BS anymore. 😛 And… this may completely ruin my credibility as a sci-fi nerd, but I haven’t been able to watch more than one episode of Firefly without turning it off. I’m just not a fan.
        Never did watch Defiance, though maybe I’ll pick that up too.

  2. Always good to put our problems in perspective. I spent years in the military on Okinawa, watching the waves on the beach as I drove to work. It was great to look out and realize, “This problem gripping me right now? I won’t even remember it next week.”
    Thanks for pointing us to the stellar “waves” and the vast dark ocean around us to remind us that today’s problems are pretty small things.

  3. I am a great fan of astronomy. Just 2 days back I learnt about Mariner 10. Tears came to mine and my sister’s eyes when we learnt that it is somewhere in an orbit around the Sun since 40 years. We cannot bring it back home.

    By the way, the write up is awesome. Looking forward for more space related facts!

    Regards
    Debashrita

    • I read an article a while back about that… it could be theoretically possible to retrieve the things we’ve shoved off into deep space, but by the time you calculate the amount of fuel you’d need, it’d actually be much, much cheaper to just build and launch a new damn rocket. Millions of years from now, I wonder if some far off alien race will find the Voyager and wonder what was the deal with that.
      Oh, check out that article I was talking about here: http://what-if.xkcd.com/38/

  4. I’m doing an astronomy/astrophysics degree right now and I totally understand these sentiments. I got my pilots’ license last year and even up at 4000ft you get an incredible perspective of how insignificant we are BUT that because of our small-ness, how much opportunity we have to do anything. I wrote a post about it a while ago because I felt like it was worth sharing. http://proventure.org/2013/04/01/skys-our-point-of-view/

    Glad to see so many people love astronomy!

  5. What if, the conditions of gas planets (which in human terms have the equivalent of hell) and their poisonous atmospheres are what is considered as “perfect” for life by whatever life form that [presumably] exists there? We can’t be too sure they’re bound to look like us, can we?

    • Of course! Anything is possible in this crazy, expanding universe of ours. If there is a race of creatures living in Saturn, sadly we still wouldn’t be able to meet them since we’d be facing a major gravity variation. It’s kind of like deep sea creatures: some of them are down there so deep, if you were to bring it up to the surface it’d explode from the pressure differences.
      And of course, if I’m wrong and someone from Saturn is reading this right now: Hi! I… hope I wasn’t being racist just then. No one likes an unintentional space racist.

      • I thought the same thing, but the writer has some pretty innovative solutions to the heat issue. He dreamed up a mobile, domed city that traverses the planet’s surface on tracks, just ahead of the sun. I agree that it’s probably not economically feasible, but the novel occurs during a time when Earth is withering and Mars is a successfully terraformed, but politically closed system.

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