Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gloriously Huge Universe

Several years ago I was debating the existance of God in an online forum. The debate was pointless, as my opponent was quick to draw arbitrary "micro-evolution, not macro-evolution" lines and resort to the inerrancy of the bible to 'prove' his point of view. He was a young-earther, too. Even though the debate stagnated after a while, there was one topic I had delivered, about which I was never able to extract a response. I posted one picture, and he put a full stop on all efforts he had been making in that direction. It was a nice moment for me. What was the topic, and what was my response?

As I stated, my opponent was a young-earther. I asked how, then, were we able to see light from stars millions of light years away? Did he not believe in the speed of light? No, he responded, the speed of light was fine. But the methods used to measure the distances to the stars were 'unreliable,' and that they were in fact much closer than we had been led to believe. This was when I struck.

Then how, I asked, do you explain the Hubble Deep Field image? I included a link to the hi-res image, and pointed out that, save for a few foreground stars, every glob of light in that image represented an entire galaxy of stars. And, if they were all within 6000 light years of us, how could the individual stars in these galaxies exist, considering they must be much smaller than a star needs to be in order to maintain nuclear fusion, and how would it have enough gravity to withstand being blown up by the nuclear energy?

This was what I couldn't get a response to. There is just something very compelling about a good visual.

The original Hubble Deep Field image (hires version here) was a snapstop of a tiny piece of the sky, like looking through a tiny keyhole. If you were to look up at the night sky, the little window this was taken from would be about the size of a dime -- held 75 feet away. And it showed more than 1,500 entire galaxies. What is really incredible is that the entire universe is like this, in all directions.

The image at the right is a more recent image, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (breathtaking hires version here). This image was taken from a section of the sky about 1/10 the diameter of the moon, over an exposure lasting 1,000,000 seconds. It reveals more than 10,000 galaxies. Aside from the foreground stars, these are all entire galaxies with billions of stars each.

It should again be noted that this is typical throughout the sky. That means that, lurking behind the moon, is at least 1,000,000 entire galaxies. And the full moon only takes up about half of 1/1000th of 1% of the full sky (360 degrees, north and south hemisphere), or 1/200,000th of the sky. Which results in roughly 200,000,000,000 galaxies that would be, barring any obstruction, visible from the Hubble telescope at a similar acuity as the HUFD.

Folks, that's one big universe.

The next step is to try to picture how big a galaxy is. A new image from Hubble shows exactly that. It is the highest detailed image of galaxy M81 (Bode's Galaxy, about 12 million light years away, shown left) ever taken. Fabulous hires version here. Yes, every single little pinpoint of light is a star. In the center they are so dense and the galaxy is so thick that they cannot be distinguished from one another. I don't even have to calculate how many stars that is, you can just see for yourself. (I've heard that 150 billion stars is average for a galaxy)

Another neat demonstration of how big the universe is -- by showing how small we are, is here in a series of image. First, the earth compared to the other rocky planets (and Pluto). Then to the rest of the planets. Then to the sun. Then the sun is compared to other normal stars. And finally, to the very largest stars. Earth grows invisible very quickly.

I don't want to write a complete rehash of my last post on nature -- but doesn't it feel just wonderful seeing how big the universe is? How could anyone possibly believe they are "God's chosen people" after seeing how amazingly tiny we are?

66 comments:

Brian said...

Great post! I was just remarking on my blog yesterday that it is impossible to make headway with creationists by arguing biology, but astronomy is a different story.

Chris said...

Lovely post! So similar to my own experience, although I wasn't near as eloquent at the time.

Ebonmuse said...

Fantastic post, and a very clever argument against young-earth creationism I hadn't heard before. What a great illustration that the real cosmos is far vaster and more wonderful than the small imaginations of men!

CHADMAC said...

Quality post! I had only ever seen the original Hubble Deep Field image before. Very awe-inspiring stuff. If you don't mind I just had to link to this from my blog.

Terra said...

Wow.

Great post and I love the visual of how small Earth really is. I was surprised at even the second shot, much less the rest...

Xander said...

Agreed with the others, a great post. As I said on the Spanish Inquisitor's post, this always reminds me of what Carl Sagan said:

“I look at that dot and I think that’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On that dot everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human-being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joy and suffering thousands of confident and mutually exclusive religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love every mother and father, every hopeful child, every inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

The whole speech can be found here.

PS Sorry this is a rehash of a past comment, but great blog, keep it up!

Atheist in a mini van. said...

Those are amazing images from the Hubbel.

John P said...

It took me awhile to get over here and read this, but read it I did. And downloaded the pictures too.

Wonderful post. As Xander mentioned, I touched on it briefly, but not as eloquently.

One thing that struck me, when looking at the hi res picture of Galaxy M81, was that if that galaxy was even remotely similar to the Milky Way, our galaxy, then pick a star, any star in it, preferably near the outer edge (so as to be comparable to our sun), and think about the distance between it and its closest neighboring star, which looks like a pixel or two away on the screen.

The closest star to the Sun, by comparison, is Alpha Centauri, which is 4 light years away from us. What that means, if the comparison is apt, is that for those two adjacent stars you picked out in M81, it takes over 4 years for light to travel between them.

Imagine the light just leaving the first star as you read this comment. Then come back in 4 years to read it again.

It's truly mind-boggling.

The Anonymous Atheist said...

Honestly, I would never think of bringing up astronomy when arguing with a creationist, but that's perhaps because I just don't know much about it.

I've had many a debate over the years, and have actually brought a few people around. The best feeling to have in a debate like that is when you say something that just stumps the other person.

Thanks for even more evidence! :)

Hubble Deep Field said...

I love the Hubble Deep Field. Just imagine, in that tiny, tiny patch of sky, we were able to see 3,000 galaxies! I've read that the observable Universe is supposed to have around a hundred billion of galaxies - each with tens or hundreds of billions of stars on average. Such an amazing and huge Universe!

I think it's time we turned from ancient beliefs that humans created when they didn't have enough knowledge of the universe to explain things they didn't understand.

Oh, I think everyone has a right to believe in whatever they want (like God, or Flying Spaghetti Monster, or unicorns) but they shouldn't push creationism crap like "alternative theories" to schoolchildren!

Finally, if you believe that God created us, why can't you think that He created entire Universe with a hundred billion galaxies, hundreds of billions stars each, to be OUR ultimate playground?

The Bible is terribly constrictive and limits the power of thinking!

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