Pondering our place in the universe is difficult – comprehension relies on points of reference. Take our sun – sure it’s a star yet we would never call warmth or light “star light” – stars are something a child wishes upon, they live outside the realm of sunlight. We feel the sun’s warmth, watch it rise and fall, take it for granted as air and water. Our sun is tangible, we see it every day – grasping what lies beyond our little corner, visualizing the universe in all its enormity without blowing a fuse – that’s the tricky part.
“Baby steps” elude when discussion of universal scope enter the ring. That said – I’ll give it a try. On a clear night, away from city lights with a dark sky void of moonlit interference – systematic dedication might result in counting 8 or 9 thousand stars. A friend shows up with respectable binoculars and perhaps 200,000 is possible. A good backyard telescope materializes and upwards of 15 million stars blow your mind. In reality – our Milky Way galaxy is home to over 300 billion stars.
Ours is an average sized galaxy – measuring about 120,000 light years from end to end, ( one light year is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometres). Astronomers estimate over 170 billion galaxies in the “observable” universe – stretching outward from us for 14 billion light years in every direction.
Professor Marshall McCall of York University published a “map” of galaxies within 20 million light years of planet Earth.
View larger. | A diagram showing the brightest galaxies within 20 million light years of the Milky Way, as seen from above. The largest galaxies, here shown in yellow at different points around the dotted line, make up the ‘Council of Giants’. Image credit: Marshall McCall/York University
The universe can’t be defined – exceeding imagination being the only definition I can offer. All I ask is that you “look at the damn sky” and at least try.