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


John W. Loftus said...

There have been Four Cosmological Displacements:

1) The Copernican theory of the heliocentric universe defended by Galileo. (1600’s). Man was no longer the center of the universe.

2) The discovery that our solar system is not central to the Milky Way galaxy, but located on the periphery; out on a spiral arm. (c. 1900). Man was not even central in his own galaxy.

3) The discovery that our galaxy is only one of a billion galaxies. (c. 1930’s). Man isn’t even central to the universe as a whole.

4) The possibility that there are an infinite number of universes, called a multiverse. Man is insignificant and God is no longer needed.

Zachary Moore said...

It's a really neat place, you know that?

exbeliever said...

Did you check out the animated version at the end? That is the coolest part for me.

Not Reformed said...


Nice post. For me...trying to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos is awe-inspiring, and it also gives me perspective on how silly these theist/non-theist arguments are. It is very hard to imagine that our speck of a world merited the attention of a 'god' who became a man...and needed to shed his blood to atone for our sins. That story reeks of primitive minds on a tiny primitve world...nothing more.

cool post.

John W. Loftus said...

The animated thing is very very cool. How significant can we really be in this extremely huge universe, since everything in this universe reduces to atoms, eletrons and quarks? To say it's astronomical doesn't quite describe it, does it?

K7 said...

Are you saying there are beings on the other planets in the solar system?

John W. Loftus said...

No. What gives you that totally mistaken impression?

K7 said...

I'm just having some fun with you, dude...

John W. Loftus said...

Okay, fine. Because we're attacked so much it's hard to think fun.

exbeliever said...


You wrote: "Are you saying there are beings on the other planets in the solar system?"

I know you were asking John, but I would say that there is a very high probablity that there are other "beings" on other planets. I can't fathom what they are like, but with the trillions of stars out there, I would have a hard time believing there was no life no where else in the universe.

What about you? Do you think there is life (other than angelic, demonic, and deity) on other planets?

John W. Loftus said...

Carl Sagan believed there was intelligent life out there, but because there was no scientific evidence for intelligent life through programs like SETI, he went to his grave not knowing.

Me? Yes, but not in our solar system.

K7 said...

I don't know. I've introduced the subject over at Triablogue. It's not something I've given much focused thought on...