We Are a Subset of the Physical Universe

Most people know that all of us (plus trees, lizards, beetles, jellyfish and so on) are made from the byproducts of nuclear fusion in the cores of stars. “We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell, sang, right?

Luke McKinney, writing for The Daily Galaxy about the likelihood of scientists soon locating a “second earth” out there, mentions almost as an aside that “The majority of the atoms in our bodies were created in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago. Most of the mass in our bodies is oxygen atoms that were created by generations of stars that preceded the formation of our Sun. We are a subset of the physical universe. And through astronomy this negligible subset is slowly acquiring -however limited- an awareness of the total universe that created it.”

Oooh, not only a subset, but a negligible subset of the universe! McKinney’s pithy putting humans in their place reminds me of why I have the Astronomy Picture of the Day website tagged as my search engine’s home page. The daily image for this website, one of the first things I see each morning, usually reminds me of what a “negligible subset” I truly am. This humbling is a healthy preamble to breakfast—after roaming the center stage of my dreams all night, it’s good to feel tiny.

And how glorious is the much larger Everything Else, as can be seen in this photo of a supernova blazing away on the outskirts of a distant spiral galaxy.

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How distant is distant? I’ll let Qfwfq, that engaging entity from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, take a shot at it:

“One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy a hundred-million light years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy’s light had taken a hundred-million years to reach me, and since they saw up there what was taking place here a hundred-million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred-million years.”

Here on earth, distance is more manageable, but not without its problems. G.B. Edwards, the author of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page—one of the best novels I’ve ever read—often worried about the “helicopter thinking” he saw in contemporary literature, that impulse to judge everything “from a superior height.” Get down on level ground with your characters, oh ye writers, and leave the superior heights to stars and nebulae and galaxies!

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