Step into My Vortex

My wife and I love to read. We usually choose a book series, go to bed early and read aloud to one another every night until we finish the series. Last year, we read through Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of novels.

One night, we were reading a section in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and it described one of the most terrible possible tortures in the galaxy, the "Total Perspective Vortex." This torture involves showing someone, "The Universe... the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances betweeen them and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small." The shock of seeing this has the affect of annihiliating the viewer's brain, because "if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion." Knowing one's true place in the Universe causes the brain to explode.

The Total Perspective Vortex was invented by extrapolating matter from a piece of fairy cake into the whole Universe. Since I don't have any fairy cake, I can't recreate it, but here is my Vortex.

Size is always relative, so there needs to be a starting point, some point of reference. Let's start with you as our reference. There are just less than six billion people on this planet. Now, we use numbers like billions and trillions a lot (especially with a Republican president who doesn't mind debt). That overuse can warp our perspective on numbers. Maybe an illustration would help. If you were to spend sixteen hours per day (so you could still get eight hours of sleep) counting one number per second, it would take you approximately three hundred years to count to six billion. Relative to the rest of humanity, you are small and insignificant.

Now, our Earth holds all six billion of these people. So that's pretty big, huh? No. Relative to the other bodies in our solar system, the Earth is tiny.

Relative Size

Look at the size of Earth relative to Jupiter. I don't remember how many Earths will fit into the tornado (eye) on Jupiter, but I remember it being more than one. Now look at the Earth relative to the Sun. And that is only a piece of the sun.

Well, at least, the Sun is relatively large, right? Not really. Our Sun is on the medium-small side. Our sun resides in a galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky way is a whirling collection of over a hundred thousand million stars around the same size as our sun (it would take you over 3500 years to count that high at the same rate mentioned above).

Milky Way

Notice the insignificant location of our sun. It is in an insignificant point on an insignificant spoke of a spinning wheel.

Well, then, maybe our galaxy is significant? Not really. Estimates from the Hubble teliscope suggest there might be one-hundred, twenty-five billion galaxies (it would take you about 6000 years to count that). Each of those galaxies contain billions of stars. This is just a snapshot from Hubble.

Hubble Snapshot

Those galaxies pictured are huge and are speeding away from us at tremendous velocity (isolating us even more).

Now, go back and rewind this tape. Start with a picture of all the galaxies in the universe. After a long period of time, find our insignificant galaxy among the billions of others. Look toward that insignificant spoke and continue to zoom in until you find the insignificant star (i.e. the Sun) in the midst of the billions of others. Go past the larger planets until you find the tiny blue and green one. Start zooming in on the continent you live in. See all of the huge structures of the surrounding cities. Catch a glimpse of the hundreds of thousands of small human creatures walking around. Keep going until you see one of them sitting in front of your computer reading a stupid blog.

Breathe in, breathe out and quickly try to forget it all. Pretend that you matter. Pretend that anything that happens here matters in the scope of the universe.

Or, if you are brave enough, read The Myth of Sisyphus and find a "more excellent way" to deal with your smallness.


For an even cooler, animated version of this, click here