Tag: Brian Cox

Just one in trillions!

The immensity of the universe and what it means for Planet Earth.

Jean and I have been watching the astounding BBC Series Wonders of Life presented by Professor Brian Cox.  Here’s the BBC trailer:

and there are more clips from the programmes on the relevant part of the BBC website.  There is so much about the series that is breath-taking.  So much that reminds one of what a beautiful and fragile planet we live on.  Quite rightly, the series received great reviews.  Here, for example, is a little of what the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper wrote:

Wonders of Life, BBC Two, review

Sarah Crompton reviews the first episode of Brian Cox’s latest series, Wonders of Life (BBC Two).


10:00PM GMT 27 Jan 2013

When it comes to presenting styles, Professor Brian Cox is hard to keep still. There isn’t a beach he won’t feel compelled to stroll on, a mountain he won’t climb, or a river he won’t jump into. And what does he carry in that bag?

Once you got beyond these irritating stylistic tropes, however, Wonders of Life (BBC Two) was Cox at his absolute best, using his natural enthusiasm to communicate complicated ideas in very simple ways. He decided, for example, to show us his own DNA by spitting in a test tube – and missed.

“A physicist doing an experiment,” he giggled, with unforced charm. But when he actually succeeded, those little strands of white that you suddenly see brought everything he subsequently said to life.

He was brilliant at explaining his thesis, which was actually about the second law of thermodynamics, so not that much of a doddle to grasp. If I’ve got it right, what Cox thinks is that life itself may have been the inevitable consequence of the laws of physics and can be explained in the same terms as we explain “the falling of the rain and the shining of the stars”.

Sarah rounds off her review, thus:

The programme’s sophisticated use of graphics, and Cox’s patient repetition of his conclusions, all added to the sensation that this is a series that is actually going to tell you something. For the BBC to unveil both this and The Story of Music over a single weekend reveals a pretty impressive commitment to public service broadcasting. Long may it last.

One of the clear messages that comes from the program is the fact that our universe and the formation of life are intimately connected.  That the ‘big bang’ some 3.2 billion years ago, the huge interstellar gas clouds, the formation of the carbon atom and the subsequent long-chained molecules, the collapse of those gas clouds to form suns and planets, the start of life, evolution through natural selection to ever more complex life forms, and on and on and on were and are inevitable.  The science is clear. There is nothing mystical about it.

Yes, of course, anyone with half-an-ounce of sensitivity will be in awe of it all; the power and beauty of nature and of the natural world.

But here’s the rub.

As another BBC television programme explained, the universe is bigger than beyond imagination.  That was from the BBC Horizon broadcast of August, 2012: How Big is the Universe?  Here’s the trailer for that programme.

Stay with me a little longer!  Just look at the following image.

The Andromeda galaxy.
The Andromeda galaxy.

This image of the Andromeda galaxy, taken in infrared and X-ray, consists of over a trillion stars.

The detailed Spitzer Space Telescope view above features infrared light from dust (red) and old stars (blue) in Andromeda, a massive spiral galaxy a mere 2.5 million light-years away. In fact, with over twice the diameter of our own Milky Way, Andromeda is the largest nearby galaxy. Andromeda’s population of bright young stars define its sweeping spiral arms in visible light images, but here the infrared view clearly follows the lumpy dust lanes heated by the young stars as they wind even closer to the galaxy’s core. Constructed to explore Andromeda’s infrared brightness and stellar populations, the full mosaic image is composed of about 3,000 individual frames. Two smaller companion galaxies, NGC 205 (below) and M32 (above) are also included in the combined fields. The data confirm that Andromeda (aka M31) houses around 1 trillion stars, compared to 4 hundred billion for the Milky Way.

Please stay with me for a few more minutes.  Keeping the Andromeda galaxy in mind, now read this:

March 29, 2013

An ‘Infinity of Dwarfs’ –A Visible Universe of 7 Trillion Dwarf Galaxies

ESA astronomers say that for every ten far galaxies observed, a hundred go undetected.
ESA astronomers say that for every ten far galaxies observed, a hundred go undetected.

Astronomers estimate that there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies in the known universe. A single galaxy such as the Milky Way contain upwards of 200 billion normal stars. About 75 percent of all stars in the Milky Way are less than half as massive as our Sun. In the universe at large, the majority of galaxies are classified as dwarfs, each with less than a few hundred million stars. The image above is a computer simulation of a colliding dwarf galaxy triggering the formation of the Milky Ways spiral arms.

The largest project ever undertaken to map out the Universe in three dimensions using ESO telescopes has reached the halfway stage. An international team of astronomers has used the VIMOS instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope to measure the distances to 55,000 galaxies as part of the VIPERS survey (VIMOS Public Extragalactic Redshift Survey). This has already allowed them to create a remarkable three-dimensional view of how galaxies were distributed in space in the younger Universe.This reveals the complex web of the large-scale structure of the Universe in great detail. The light of each galaxy is spread out into its component colours within VIMOS. Follow up analysis then allows astronomers to work out how fast the galaxy appears to move away from us — its redshift. This in turn reveals its distance and, when combined with its position on the sky, its location in the Universe.


Millions of galaxies, trillions of suns, inconceivable numbers of planets.

Please pause and let the numbers sink in.

Now back to that Wonders of Life BBC series, during which Professor Brian Cox, said, “that it is inconceivable that there isn’t life elsewhere, that life is not present on countless other planets circling countless other suns …“.

In other words, if mankind is so intent on ‘fouling our nest’ on this most beautiful of planets, so what!

In the bigger scheme of things, it matters not.  Find that tough?  Then go and hug a dog and enjoy the moment.  For tomorrow may never come.

All in the meaning, postscript!

Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.

The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.

Being alive is the meaning.

On the 28th March I wrote what I thought was a concluding piece on the subject of ‘meaning’.  I used some of the most amazing details about the universe to highlight the fact that, in the end, if our civilisation doesn’t get it’s collective act together then from the perspective of the universe it is all pretty irrelevant.  In that piece I quoted from Prof. Brian Cox, “Everything we are, everything that’s ever been and everything that will ever be was all forged in the same moment of creation 13.7bn years ago from an unimaginably hot and dense volume of matter less than the size of an atom.

Now, in fairness, Prof. Cox did allude to scientists exploring the notion of what might have happened before the Big Bang.  Anyway, a couple of nights ago we watched a BBC Horizon programme, now on YouTube, that looked much more closely into this fascinating topic.  The link came to us from the website Top Documentary Films that set out the introduction to the BBC programme.

They are the biggest questions that science can possibly ask: where did everything in our universe come from? How did it all begin? For nearly a hundred years, we thought we had the answer: a big bang some 14 billion years ago.

But now some scientists believe that was not really the beginning. Our universe may have had a life before this violent moment of creation.

Horizon takes the ultimate trip into the unknown, to explore a dizzying world of cosmic bounces, rips and multiple universes, and finds out what happened before the big bang.

Neil Turok, Director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, working with Paul Steinhardt at Princeton, has proposed a radical new answer to cosmology’s deepest question: What banged?

Answer: Instead of the universe inexplicably springing into existence from a mysteriousinitial singularity, the Big Bang was a collision between two universes like ours existing as parallel membranes floating in a higher-dimensional space that we’re not aware of.

One bang is followed by another, in a potentially endless series of cosmic cycles, each one spelling the end of a universe and the beginning of a new one. Not one bang, but many.

Sir Roger Penrose has changed his mind about the Big Bang. He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on.

Here’s that programme.  Enjoy!

Sciences becomes magic.

Only a mystical view can speak to the soul.


The Helix nebula

(More on the Helix nebula here.)

I have referred yesterday to the series on the BBC hosted by Professor Brian Cox called Wonders of the Universe.  Well we managed to watch the last episode last night, entitled Messengers.  Like the other three episodes, it was breath-taking.

In this last episode, Prof. Cox speaks of the universe still expanding with the outer edge, if edge is the appropriate word, being about 8.7 billion light years away.  Thus the age of the Universe is about that; 8.7 billion light years.  Note: NASA has a piece that suggests that this figure may not be confirmed.  But let’s not worry too much about the precise value.  But we will take a short detour to understand a little more about the ‘light year’.

From here.

So to measure really long distances, people use a unit called alight yearLight travels at 186,000 miles per second (300,000 kilometers per second). Therefore, a light second is 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers). A light year is the distance that light can travel in a year, or:

186,000 miles/second * 60 seconds/minute * 60 minutes/hour * 24 hours/day * 365 days/year = 5,865,696,000,000 miles/year

A light year is 5,865,696,000,000 miles (9,460,800,000,000 kilometers). That’s a long way!

That is a single light-year. Now reflect on the outer edge of the universe being, say, 8,700,000,000 multiplied by 5,865,696,000,000 miles away.  Don’t know about your mind, but my mind has no ‘feel’ for that distance whatsoever.

OK, next proposition put forward by Prof. Cox.  That is that scientists believe that ‘The Big Bang’ was the instant that the universe erupted, if that’s an appropriate word, from a single point, smaller than the size of a grain of sand.

That has no rational meaning whatsoever. Now my mind just goes into la, la land!  But at the level of magic, mysticism, the spiritual, then one does experience the deep meaning of the creation.  Our creation.  For we are part of the universe and the universe is part of us.

Just like the rose.  Trying to describe it cuts nothing compared to closing one’s eyes and simply breathing in the perfume.

Here is that last episode, in four parts from YouTube. Watch and prepared to be transformed.

All in the meaning, conclusion

Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.

The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.

Being alive is the meaning.

It would be so easy to stay with this theme for a very long time, perhaps to the end of one’s mortal days.

Anyway, my topic has taken sufficient shape for me to conclude with this article and then leave these ideas with you, or just out there in the universe. The ‘shape’ being that whether the facts about the way we treat Planet Earth depress you, or whether taking a mystic, spiritual view is more your scene, it’s up to you.  Let’s recap.

The first article was to show that there are very strong and valid reasons to take an incredibly dim view of where it’s all heading.  In fact, those that stay with Learning from Dogs over the weeks, you hardy lot!, will know that the premise that we, as in mankind, are well and truly in the midst of a massive transition, unlike anything ever experienced before, is an idea that crops up here every so often.  This piece on the 22nd is just an example, and there are many more articles resonating around this theme on the Blog.

Then the second article was to show that a simple change of perspective can make all the difference to how we see the world. (Oh, and such a big thank-you to Sue Dreamwalker for that beautiful poem from her.)

OK, to the point of this article!

The BBC have been showing the most beautiful episodes in recent weeks from a massive production hosted by Professor Brian Cox- The Wonders of the Universe.  Here’s the BBC trailer.

Did you pick up on that key sentence?  “Ultimately, we are part of the universe.”

Here’s a recent piece from the British Guardian newspaper, I think written by Brian Cox, the presenter of the series.

The universe is amazing. You are amazing. I am amazing. For we are all one. Everything we are, everything that’s ever been and everything that will ever be was all forged in the same moment of creation 13.7bn years ago from an unimaginably hot and dense volume of matter less than the size of an atom. And that is amazing. [Understatement! Ed.] What happened before then in the Planck epoch is a matter of conjecture; we lack a theory of quantum gravity, though some believe the universe was formed from a collision of two pieces of space and time floating forever in an infinite space, but I feel I’m losing you at this point, which isn’t so amazing.

Read it in full here, but it concludes, almost poetically, as,

Time feels human, but we are only part of Cosmic Time and we can only ever measure its passing. As I stand in front of the great glacier that towers over Lake Argentino, time seems to almost stand still, yet as I explain the effects of entropy in the Namibian desert as sandcastles crumble around me, you can see that the transition from order to chaos can happen almost in the blink of an eye. One day, perhaps in 6bn years, our universe will stop expanding, the sun will cool and die, as all stars must, and everything will collapse in on itself, back into a black hole singularity. I leave you with this last thought: that we, too, will only really die when the universe dies, for everything within it is intrinsically the same.

Brian Cox takes an almost mystical perspective of the size of the universe and the almost unimaginable number of stars and planets it contains.

So, how many stars are out there?  From here, I quote,

It’s a great big Universe out there, with a huge numbers of stars. But how many stars are there, exactly? How many stars are there in the Universe? Of course it’s a difficult question to answer, because the Universe is a vast place and our telescopes can’t reach every corner to count the number of stars. But we can make some rough estimates. Almost all the stars in the Universe are collected together into galaxies. They can be small dwarf galaxies, with just 10 million or so stars, or they can be monstrous irregular galaxies with 10 trillion stars or more. Our own Milky Way galaxy seems to contain about 200 billion stars; and we’re actually about average number of stars.

So an average galaxy contains between 1011 and 1012 stars. In other words, galaxies, on average have between 100 billion and 1 trillion numbers of stars.

Now, how many galaxies are there? Astronomers estimate that there are approximately 100 billion to 1 trillion galaxies in the Universe. So if you multiply those two numbers together, you get between 1022 and 1024 stars in the Universe. How many stars? There are between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion stars in the Universe. That’s a large number of stars.

Even if one writes down in longhand the number, 1022 , as in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 it still has no real meaning whatsover.  That, of course, does not even get close to estimating how many planets there are out there.

Let’s say, just as a muse, that each sun only had a single planet.  Let us also continue this musing and say that only one in a billion planets had life on it.  In other words, if we divide 1022 by a billion, we still get the eye-watering result of there being 1013 or, longhand, 10,000,000,000,000 planets with life forms. That’s 10 trillion, by the way!

OK, cut it down some more, and then some more, and even more.

But whichever way you cut it, the conclusion is inescapable, the universe must be teeming with life and much of that life intelligent and wise.

So let me leave you with this thought about the meaning of it all.  It’s this.

It is said that the world reflects back what we think about most.  As I hope to have shown, we can think our way into extinction, or we can think our way to more mystic and spiritual outcomes. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.

In the end, if we screw up this planet as place for mankind to prosper and grow, it’s no big deal.  There will be many other humankinds out there in the universe who have taken a different route.

Sleep well tonight!