Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Buzz of Understanding a Light-Year

It's rare to find people being astounded anymore. Not surprised, not amazed, those are experiences you can still come by during an unexpected birthday party, or seeing a fat person's sudden transformation. But, to be astounded, is quite rare. And, to be astounded, is such a beautiful experience too.

I suppose, when you are a child you have such moments, as you learn about a few things that seem so new and... astounding. Perhaps, when you learn about the solar-system, how the Earth takes a full 360 in 24 hours, or how the rings of Saturn aren't really that solid, and definitely not a theme-park prototype created by Jesus... But, even children don't seem to really experience that sense of astonishment, I feel. The reason is, when you discover something unknown out of your own personal curiosity, it can astound you -- but if it's just part of the school curriculum, that's just another chapter in the book your are learning. And, because we have a general understanding of so many concepts now as we are growing up, we just rarely ever get astounded as adults anymore.

For instance, I know I learnt about the solar system and the universe back in high school, and it was all interesting. I remember a viral email that went around some 10+ years back which showed solid balls, painted like the different planets within our solar system, to give the reader an understanding of how huge our sun and surrounding planets are in comparison to our own planet. This was all, interesting -- but not something that just took over my whole mind for a few seconds. It was not until around 10 years back, when I was sitting with a friend on a pointless evening, staring at the skies, and my mind just wandered over a thought. I thought about how, if I were to step out of where I was and go upwards, I'd see my city, within a country, within a continent, within our planet, within our solar-system, within the galaxy, within the universe... And then what? I'd be stuck in an object that I would never be able to observe from the outside. Everything else got boxed in a package as I stepped outward, but the universe was something I could never step out of.

Even now, if I think about that idea, it fills me up. It feels almost as if all my problems disappear, because everything else suddenly starts feeling so petty.

It was just a few days ago, when a scientist on NatGeo said something that astounded me once again. He was talking about how he was observing a storm on a particular star which was 200 light-years away, and he continued to say "which basically means, I am observing a storm that took place 200 years ago." And that, just hit me! I was being taught that a light-year is the distance light travels in a year, which turns out to be almost 10 trillion kilometers. I was being taught the text-book definition of the term, but I don't ever remember anyone really explaining it to me in a way that would have astounded me.

The Orion's belt, which so many of us stare at during a clear night, consists of three main stars; the closest of which (Alnitak) is around 736 light-years away from our planet. That means, the Orion's belt probably doesn't even exist at this point in time as I currently see it; Alnitak could have just died yesterday, but I will only ever see that happen 736 years from now...

Such a realisation, can really change your perspective, if only for a few moments. We all seem to live with this secret thought at the back of our heads that we are the protagonist of our personal movies or books. But, when you realise how vast the universe is and how near-sighted you truly are to ever really experience it in it's totality, that's got to make you feel a bit small, I suppose. And yet, in that significant shrinkage, there appears to be this sense of feeling full... if only for a few seconds while you are astounded.

"The tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao"
- Lao Tzu

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