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We are mites

There’s a quote that I’ve always remembered due to it’s ability to reduce something that’s almost unimaginable into something actually tangible. There was a recent discovery by NASA, via the Hubble telescope, that indicates there are 10 times more galaxies in our observable universe than previously thought. [1] This discovery made me immediately think of this quote.

The universe is unfathomably vast. With this new discovery, the number of estimated galaxies in the observable Universe went from 200 billion to 2 trillion. If you consider that there are approximately 100 billion stars in each galaxy, you get a total of about 2x10^23 (200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in the entire universe. The universe is 98 billion light years across. Light travels so fast that it seems instant to us. Yet, it would still take light 98 BILLION years to travel across the entire universe. That is a very, very long time. When it comes to the size of the universe, we are talking unimaginable timescales and numbers. Our brains are not evolved to understand numbers this large. We understand numbers only so far as they are useful in our day-to-day survival. 2 bananas. 4 wolves. 10 fingers. These are the numbers we understand and can actually comprehend. A septillion, not so much. That’s why it’s important to have metaphors for understanding. This brings us to the quote:

We are mites on an ant’s ass trying to understand Google. - Joe Rogan

This quote sums up our lack of understanding in a way that we do understand. We understand the size of an ant, and we can even imagine how small a mite would be lounging on the posterior of the ant. In order to understand what Google is, as a mite, one would need an extraordinary amount of context and understanding of things that are totally abstract and intangible to the mites worldview. The first step would be to realize you are a mite. Then to know what an ant is and how you are surviving on it’s ass. Then to know what humans are. Then to know what knowledge and information is. Then to know what a computer is. Then to know what the internet is. And so on and so forth. This is a really naive interpretation, and it really does the quote a disservice to try and break down what it would actually take for an mite to understand Google. There are too many variables involved and a timescale so vast that it’s, again, unimaginable. What we do get when we simply interpret the metaphor at a superficial level, is a brief glimpse of how little we actually know with regards to our current understanding of existence.

In some instances we feel like we know everything. We know how to split atoms to create atomic bombs. We know how to create chemicals to destroy microscopic organisms that are trying to kill us. We know how to build ships that travel through space and land on the moon. We know how to enhance our vision in order to see light years away. We know how to land robots on distant planets and communicate with them. But in regards to total existence, we know absolutely nothing. We aren’t just mites on an ant’s ass, we are the electrons orbiting the nucleus in a carbon atom that makes up the DNA in the cells of the mite that’s sitting on the ant’s ass trying to understand Google.

Here are a few resources that can help give some perspective on our size relative to the Universe.

Earth compared to other planets and stars

Earth compared to Stars

An interactive map that lets you explore from microscopic to macroscopic

Interactive perspective

A video showing off the scale of the universe

Video of the scale of the Universe


[1] NASA. Hubble Reveals Observable Universe Contains 10 Times More Galaxies Than Previously Thought. NASA website. http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/hubble-reveals-observable-universe-contains-10-times-more-galaxies-than-previously-thought. October 13, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2016.

Written on November 23, 2016