Once we used to wonder and feel awe. Wondering was magical. These days we wonder about stupid things like whether to get vaccinated. No one looks up at the stars very much. Time for change?
Someone told me Jupiter could hold 1,300 earths. Then I learned that the sun could hold a million earths. You’d say 10 lakhs but that’s still one followed by six zeros and more money than I’ve ever seen together. Representation pic
Admit it. There was a night when you were a child when you looked up at the sky and couldn’t take your eyes off the stars. The sheer number of them, strewn like gemstones across the heavens, stars everywhere you looked. You wondered if they were bigger or smaller than this little planet we sit on, and whether they had people and animals like ours.
Someone told me Jupiter could hold 1,300 earths. My mouth became a big ‘O’ — I couldn’t imagine something that big. Then I learned that the sun could hold a million earths. You’d say 10 lakhs but that’s still one followed by six zeros and more money than I’ve ever seen together.
Wondering was magical. Wondering made my eyes grow wide, made me gasp, made me ponder imponderables. There were things that filled me with awe every time, such as the number of legs on a centipede and how a plain caterpillar could emerge as a breathtaking butterfly, and fly without training.
These days, we wonder about stupid things such as whether to get vaccinated. Whether the rains will come on time. How long you’ll still have this job. Why some people don’t wear masks and don’t care if others die. No one looks up at the stars very much. Even the stars seem to have gone away.
So let’s forget banalities for a moment. I promise you — you’ll either be alive or dead tomorrow and this will be true every remaining day of your life. So sit down and let me share a few things that still make my eyes go wide and send a chill down my spine.
One day in Africa, I learned that if you sized up a single atom to the size of a football stadium, then its nucleus, with electrons and protons, would be a football at the centre of the stadium. Most of the atom is utterly empty. An adult human being is made up of 7 octillion atoms — that’s 27 zeros. Like you, I cannot image how that would look.
Physicists calculate that if you removed all the space inside all the atoms inside all the human beings, then the entire human race could be compressed into something the size of a sugar cube. A really heavy sugar cube of course.
The problem is those zeros. A zero is nothing, so we yawn and move on when we see a string of so many nothings. A friend of mine uses millionaire and billionaire interchangeably as meaning just obscenely rich people. But what’s the real difference between a million, a billion and trillion?
Clue: a billion has 9 zeros and a trillion 12. Better? Oh dear, you’re still in a fog.
A million seconds would be about 11.5 days. Does that help?
A billion seconds would equal 31.5 years, but a trillion seconds would be — 31,688 years.
I am left giddy at the thought that within every human being is a heart that will pump without a moment’s rest for an entire life. There’s no man-made thing that could work that long without downtime. If you lived to be 80, your heart would have beaten 3,363,840,000 times. That’s over 3.3 billion.
You know that one about folding a paper over and over again? It knocks me speechless whenever I think about it. Each time you fold it, its thickness doubles. One millimetre becomes two, then four, then eight, 16, 32 and so on. It’s called exponential growth and I cannot wrap my little mind around it. The coronavirus grows exponentially, and we’re getting jacked because we don’t understand exponential growth.
I still cannot believe that if you fold a sheet of paper just 42 times, it would go all the way from the earth to the moon. You can verify the claim yourself by writing 1 in the first cell of a spreadsheet and doubling it repeatedly in the cells below. In the 42nd cell you’d see 439,804,000 mms. The moon is only 384,800,000 mms away.
Which brings me to viruses. I know you’re scared already but I’m about to terrify you. There are an estimated 10 nonillion (31 zeroes) viruses in the world. So why aren’t we all dead yet? Because only a handful of them cause diseases in humans. Most viruses find humans boring, I think. Even if there’s enough of them to assign one to every star in the universe 100 million times over.
I become very still when I think of a time before there were stars. Was there just a big humongous infinite emptiness? But that’s like a bucket without water. Was there a time before there was even a bucket? Space is still something. Was there a time before there was even empty space?
This is where my brain breaks down. I can’t imagine that much of nothing.
About that vaccine shot? You know, just go for it, dude. You’re going to live. Until you die, anyway.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.