The COVID-19 pandemic – the big, BIG picture

As the person trying to drain the swamp while surrounded by alligators reminds us, it’s hard to readjust one’s perspective in the middle of a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic meets all the criteria for being a crisis and on many different levels. The medical aspect of the pandemic is inescapably dire, anti-maskers, and conspiracy theories notwithstanding. There are also the challenges of how we respond to the illnesses, the deaths, the economic strain, and the mental stress of dealing with that vocal segment of the country who believe all of this to be a hoax. The fatigue is real. We all want this to be over. We want to go back a year when we could go to theaters, restaurants, and public events without the constant reminder covering our faces that tells us all of those things are in the past, but they are also in the future.

With that somewhat dark assessment as a backdrop, I thought it might be helpful to add a little perspective to where we are. I find it useful sometimes to take a longer view of situations. I ask myself if the swamp really needs to be drained, or should the alligators be left alone.

The hard truth is we, as humans, are not that consequential. That sounds harsh, but all of us are part of a community that is far bigger than can be imagined. I find it reassuring to remember that since humans first sprouted on the evolutionary tree, there have been some 108 billion of us. [1] Can you imagine how many of our ancestors would be incredulous if they heard the complaints today about not being able to go to a restaurant and be served hot food and cool drinks? I can’t leave the human connectedness perspective without two thoughts.

The first is that part of the breath you just took was also inhaled by Julius Caesar. Okay, it’s a small part. James Lloyd summarized the concept in a 2017 article: [2]

“The story goes that in 44 BC in Rome, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of his own senators, crumpling to the floor with a final gasp. This last breath contained around 25 sextillion (that’s 25 followed by 21 zeroes) air molecules, which would have spread around the globe within a couple of years. A breath seems like such a small thing compared to the Earth’s atmosphere, but remarkably, if you do the math, you’ll find that roughly one molecule of Caesar’s air will appear in your next breath.

And it doesn’t stop there. In the same way, you might currently be inhaling Cleopatra’s perfume, German mustard gas and even particles exhaled by dinosaurs.”

The second is the nifty chart below that depicts 4,000 years of humanity’s history of humanity as it was understood in 1931. [3] My takeaway from the chart is that a whole lot of stuff has gone down before you and I were born, especially when you consider another 12 billion people have been born since the chart was made.

Pondering the imaginary

When we view ourselves not as an individual person in a pandemic, but as a person in the universe, things take on a different perspective. But at the same time, we are prisoners of our own biology and evolution. We really can’t judge time beyond a few days, and we can’t judge distance beyond a few hundred feet. Past those limits, measurements become estimates and estimates become imaginary.

And yet, it is in trying to understand the imaginary that we can become untethered from those things that consume our daily activities – those things that make the trivial seem important. At some point, it becomes curious to think that we allow our days to be dominated by an ignominious, 250 pound [4] chordate, spray-painted orange, whose antics we allow to be amplified by those tiny, 7-ounce screens that are never out of reach. Doesn’t it seem we could put the fruits of our Krebs cycle to much better use?

Back to the succor of big things. What really started me on this rabbit hole of a posting was not Alice’s white rabbit. It was Gaia Early Data Release 3​​​​​​ that was made available a few days ago. [5] Gaia is a satellite launched in 2013 by the European Space Agency with the mission of creating a 3D map of our galaxy – The Milky Way. [6] It’s a remarkable project and all of their data is available to the public including a visualization tool [7] that lets you zoom around the galaxy and create images like the one below.

The Gaia site and its data boggles my mind, but I wanted to put it in perspective by thinking about where the Milky Way fits into the human story. Before I delve into the vast numbers that help put the pandemic in perspective, my thoughts turned to observations about the Earth.

Earth – a temporary waypoint in the story of the cosmos

First of all, this planet, Earth, was not always in existence [8] and its certain fate is to be destroyed as it is enveloped by the Sun as it turns into a red giant. [9]  The earth and all that is on it, or ever has been on it, is destined to return to the vastness of space.

But don’t worry, the heavy elements that are fundamental parts of our bodies were created as the result of explosive events of other stars. It was in the summer of 2019 that a University of Guelph physicist suggested that most of the heavy elements in the universe were created by collapsars – not colliding neutron stars. [10] This led to the revision of the sources of elements in the periodic table.

As Carl Sagan often said, we are all made of stardust.

How big is big? Really, really big.

Earth seems very big to humans, especially considering that the median daily travel distance, as measured from cell phone data, was around four miles before the pandemic. [11] Compared to the solar system, we’re not all that remarkable, unless you consider having life is noteworthy. The following series of photos helped me understand that.

Above, Earth as seen from the surface of Mars, [12] and below, Earth as seen from Cassini with Saturn in the foreground. [13] Looking from beyond the gravitational pull of the Earth, we don’t look all that remarkable.

The Milky Way

As we know, our solar system is in a galaxy with 100-400 billion other stars. That’s more stars that there have been people born on earth. Remember that Gaia image of the Milky Way? The image below shows where the earth is located in the galaxy. And that little blue circle is the distance human-generated radio waves have traveled since they were first broadcast. [14]  This image is a great way to visualize part of the Fermi paradox – if this galaxy is so big, then where are all the aliens? [15]

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

It’s safe to say the Milky Way is big, but it’s only one of many galaxies. In 1996, the Hubble telescope was pointed at a dark area of the sky [16] and the image below was created. Those aren’t stars, they’re galaxies. It wasn’t so dark after all.

It gets better.

In 2014, a paper published in Nature [17] reported that our galaxy was located in what was then defined as a supercluster. The researchers named the supercluster Laniakea meaning “immense heaven” in Hawaiian. [18] They determined that the supercluster contains 100,000 galaxies and has the structure represented in the image below. [19] Also interesting is that all the galaxies appear to be moving toward on point, aptly named, The Great Attractor. [20]  Is this cool stuff, or what?

And better

Laniakea is not alone. It borders another supercluster, Perseus-Pisces.

And better, yet.

There are many superclusters thought to comprise a vast network of concentrations of superclusters and voids speculated to look like this:

Can you find your neighborhood in the image above? Can you find the Earth? Can you find the Milky Way? I’m guessing you see where this is going. How important does it seem to you now that one of your 500 Facebook friends unfriended you? Are you still devastated that the Packers lost today’s game? Do you think we’ll get past the COVID-19 Pandemic?

In terms of getting the big picture, this video does an excellent job of putting all these pieces in order.

The take-home lesson

In the moment, living through a pandemic is a challenging experience, but taking a step back and realizing that you are part of a much bigger system can be helpful To be sure, COVID-19 and all its impacts are very real, and thinking about big things like the vastness of time and space will not reduce the spread of the virus. What it may do, though, is to be an impetus to focus your attention away from the mundane, away from the petty, and away from the cacophony of media distractions. Real life is still going on around all of us. Take a look, there are some interesting things to be seen.

We are the rarest of creatures in the universe – living things that have the gift of self-awareness and consciousness. Use it well. We only have it for the briefest of moments.

 

[1] https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/

[2] https://www.sciencefocus.com/planet-earth/are-we-really-breathing-caesars-last-breath/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/04/27/the-entire-history-of-the-world-in-1-chart/

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/10/06/just-how-big-is-trump-we-asked-5-experts-to-you-guessed-it-weigh-in/

[5] https://www.cosmos.esa.int/web/gaia/early-data-release-3​​​​​

[6] https://sci.esa.int/web/gaia

[7] https://gea.esac.esa.int/archive/visualization/

[8] https://www.mirror.co.uk/science/earth-formed-milky-way-smashed-22088964

[9] https://phys.org/news/2016-05-earth-survive-sun-red-giant.html

[10] https://phys.org/news/2020-09-elements-neutron-stars-contribute-gold.html

[11] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2770249

[12] http://www.sci-news.com/space/curiosity-earth-venus-08537.html

[13] https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/pia17171.html

[14] https://www.planetary.org/space-images/extent-of-human-radio-broadcasts

[15] https://www.seti.org/seti-institute/project/fermi-paradox

[16] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2015/04/24/when-hubble-stared-at-nothing-for-100-hours/

[17] https://www.nature.com/articles/nature13674

[18] https://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/press-releases/Laniakea/

[19] https://www.vox.com/2014/9/4/6105631/map-galaxy-supercluster-laniakea-milky-way

[20] https://www.universetoday.com/113150/what-is-the-great-attractor/


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