Universe is too big and too small to comprehend

What is the biggest formation in our universe? And, what is the smallest one there?   With the help of technology at our disposal, we find that these are indeed bewildering immensities. We stand somewhere in between and wonder at our destiny in the whole scheme.  Visions pass before our eyes of man and the earth. Primitive man at the debut out of his pre-human existence for the first time peeps out of a dark cave and stares up at the sky until the distant stars, which kindles a light of response in his eyes. A vague uneasiness creeps in his breast at the void lying before him. What else does he have to measure this unfathomed void but a song being sung before the fire-side? Since then centuries and millennia have rolled by and the concepts of the earth and heaven have expanded in his consciousness to the dimensions of the universe. Human thought has had to grope its way over time through murky mazes and dead ends, it resorted to hibernation for centuries to wait for its hour and floundered in the pitfalls of delusions and contradictions, yet man has inevitably emerged triumphant from his struggle with eternal, inexhaustible Nature. And now, too, his mind seeks to probe the depths of the universe and the fundamentals of matter. Man stands at a crossroads of infinities. Here, one road leads him into a world of galaxies, where fleeing matter soars to sub-light speed and the other, into a micro world of vanishingly small spatial and temporal dimensions and the strange world of dual manifestations where the perplexing laws of probability rule.

Today at the stage of science that is available to us and with the help of knowledge that is part of our consciousness, let us try to fathom the hazy voids.  The known portion of the universe extends for approximately 1010 light years, or 1028 cm. Man is smaller than the universe by a factor of 1026. The dimensions of our planet make it impossible for us to comprehend even approximately the vastness and frightening meaning of this difference. But man is great if only because he has succeeded in spanning it. Take the other road to infinity, which leads into the world of elementary particles. The smallest of the known distance is 10 – 14 cm. It differs from the greatest by a factor of 1042. These are the limits of modern knowledge, the measured sections of the roads.

The number 1042 are so great that it is impossible to offer a meaningful picture of its true magnitude. An example from Kenneth Ford’s book, The World of Elementary Particles, in which he attempts to assess the number 1042 in terms of conventional images, is as good as any other. Suppose the number of people increased to 1042. The globe is capable of holding some 1015 persons standing side by side. There are around 1023 stars in the universe. Assuming that each star has 10 planets, there are 1024 planets. Well, by standing people side by side on all of them we could make place for 1039 persons, still much fewer than 1042.

This playing with numbers is with regard to space. What    about time? Let us consider the measures of time also. Man’s average life expectancy is 70 years. Civilization is several thousand years old. It will be for other civilizations to judge what we have achieved, or failed to achieve in the time at our disposal. The smallest known distance is 10 -14 cm. Light travels it in 10 – 24 sec. This, then, is the smallest time interval, and it lies far beyond the limits of all known methods of time measurement. The greatest time interval we know is the ‘lifetime of the universe’. By this is meant the time the universe has been expanding, estimated at anywhere between 10,000 million and 30,000 million years, or about 1018 sec. A comparison of these intervals yields the staggering number 1042 sec. These are the temporal dimensions with which man, which lives 108 sec, has to deal. Incidentally, the coincidence of the time and distance intervals is not fortuitous. The remotest sections of the universe are receding from us at velocities approaching that of light. These, too, are the velocities of particles of the micro world. The speed of light unites the two infinities, the infinity of vastness and the infinity of minuteness.

And we are at the crossroads. The habitual everyday world about us knows no such speeds. Only the human intellect can cope with domains where light is a measure of speed. These are the dimensions of space and time. There remains matter. It changes with time and moves through space, it constitutes our essence: Nature realizes itself in Homo sapiens. Matter has many faces and its manifestations are infinite. But there is one thing characteristic of all matter: mass. Let us try to assess the approximate mass of the universe. It contains 1023 stars. An average star weighs 1035 g. Hence, the mass of the universe is something like 1058 grams. Each gram contains about 1024 protons. A rough estimate thus yields that the known portion of the universe contains 1082 protons. A man weighs about 105 g. and contains approximately 1029 protons. His brain, however, is capable of comprehending the number 1082 and ‘weighing’ the universe.

This is the image of man put in the perspectives of space and time. And this is the image of his thoughts – thoughts when he was living in caves and today when he zooms in spacecrafts. Man has traveled a long distance from his cave dwelling to a star-counter. It is why the mysteries of space, time and matter excite and attract his imagination so much. Not for the sake of the cold light of abstract truth does man so stubbornly assault the secrets of the universe. It is not only for the sake of technological progress and material affluence that he seeks to fathom the depths of the macro- and micro world. Man’s main, and not always realized, incentive for quest lies within him. When one speaks of the limits of the universe he implies the limits of knowledge. Temporary limits, to be sure, but nevertheless limits. In probing the universe man probes his own brain. The nature of his boldest and ‘maddest’ theories is determined by his way of thinking. That is why the secrets of the cosmos and the micro world excite and attract us. They are (as if) a mirror, which reflects our capability for knowledge. And man is born for knowledge. This is the meaning and the purpose of civilization. This is why man will never stop looking into the mirror of the universe.

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