We at The Naturalist’s Notebook love outer space—the beauty, the mysteries, the vastness. Scientists estimate the number of stars in the universe as one sextillion, or 10 to the 21st power. “That’s a thousand times more than all the words ever uttered by everyone who has ever lived,” said astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson the other night when I listened to him give a talk at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York.
Think of it another way some clear night when you’re gazing up and pondering: One sextillion letters, typed without spaces and each representing a different star, would fill two thousand trillion issues of the magazine I work for, Sports Illustrated, with nothing but text. And if you stacked up all those issues, the pile would extend 1.6 billion miles into the sky—more than halfway to Pluto (when it’s closest to the Earth).
Pause to absorb that.
Pluto, the endearing chunk of rock and ice that has long been a symbol of distant isolation, isn’t really that far away compared to the stars. At The Naturalist’s Notebook last year we discussed how long, at the speed of an airliner traveling 24 hours a day, it would take to reach celestial bodies. To get to Pluto you’d be buckled into that airplane seat for 685 years. Not bad, when you consider that to reach the nearest star (other than our Sun), you’d be riding the plane for almost 4.6 million years.
Pause to absorb that. And I don’t mean the question of where your luggage would end up.
In any case, what drew me to the Barnes & Noble was not Pluto’s weak gravity but deGrasse Tyson’s irresistible pull. The host of NOVA’s “Origins” series on PBS is an engaging, insightful and frequently hilarious speaker who makes science more understandable to the average person—one of our hopes for The Naturalist’s Notebook, as you know if you’ve stepped inside our quirky coastal Maine shop and exploratorium.
DeGrasse Tyson was at B&N to talk about his book The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, now available in paperback. His recounting of the global uproar he helped create by contributing to Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet in August 2006 was a brilliant off-the-cuff riff on everything from the flood of angry mail he received (“Some people like Pluto,” wrote a young girl. “If it doesn’t exist then they don’t have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can’t read in cursive”) to the Disney-prompted romanticizing of what had been the ninth planet (“I think if we’d demoted Neptune, no one would have cared”) to the time he posed for a photo with Bill Nye the Science Guy and White Stripes guitarist Jack White (“a big fan of the universe, by the way”) to the mind-boggling accomplishments of his favorite scientist, Sir Isaac Newton (“who did NOT invent the Fig Newton—that name comes from Newton, Mass.”).
In a future posting I’ll go into some of the other topics deGrasse Tyson addressed, but in the meantime I’ll just recommend that you buy a copy of his book (from The Naturalist’s Notebook, if you wait until we reopen for the season in June) and leave you with the response he gave when he was asked if he believed there was life on other planets:
“Science is not a belief system,” deGrasse Tyson said. “People ask me if I believe in the Big Bang Theory. I say, That’s what all the data tell us. You can choose to ignore all the data and believe something else,but that’s not science. That’s something else. Like politics.”
Notebook Note: PBS will air a NOVA documentary based on The Pluto Files on March 2. The day before, you’ll be able to catch deGrasse Tyson on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
Notebook Dictionary: outer space: 1) any location outside the Earth’s atmosphere or 2) the void that exists beyond any celestial body