Friday, February 3, 2012

You Are Here

Almost three decades ago, I went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. It reminded me of the Museum of Science And Industry in Chicago, or the Deutsches Museum, which I went to daily during my week's stay in Munich. If you have any doubt that I harbor the brain of a five-year-old, these visits should utterly erase it. Not only am I a science geek, but a hands-on science geek. I guess that comes from being a primate.

The next time I was in SF, maybe two to three years later, I went again to the Exploratorium. And that time I left the gift shop with a sweatshirt that had an image of the galaxy printed on it, with an arrow pointing into a spiral arm two-thirds of the way out from galactic center that said "You Are Here". And I wore that sweatshirt unashamedly until became a ratty paint-rag. I would even, if properly jollied, sing "The Galaxy Song", and sometimes when I was wearing it.

Can you possibly think of an even more circus geek thing to do? Well, how about this. Our local stellar neighborhood, or even, the galactic neighborhood, has become rather boring and tame to me.

(I actually made a 3D model of the closest stars. I mounted the stars in their proper positions. I found different sized plastic beads to represent stars large and small. I glued together beads for the binary and trinary stellar systems. I even painted little plastic beads the correct color. And worst of all, I did not label them, as I knew the star names by heart. I was twenty-two years old when I did that. I kept that stellar diorama until well into my thirties. Sad, huh?) 

I didn't go quite so far with making a diorama of the galaxy, but give me an excuse, and I might.

Lately, I'm fascinated with the bigger picture. Here's one: This is the Local Galactic Group. As you can see, it is dominated by two giant galaxies, our Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. The Andromeda galaxy is on a collision course with our galaxy. It is scheduled to smack us about two billion years from now. I wouldn't worry overmuch about it, as the meeting will be about the same as two clouds of cigarette smoke banging into each, although the mutual gravitational pull will merge our galaxies together into a big elliptical egg. There is a chance that our Sun could be thrown clear of the whole mess, in which case, Old Sol may end up spending its doddering years drifting through intergalactic space. But fear not, we won't get too far out before it (the Sun, the planets) goes gablooey into a white dwarf.

But there is a much bigger picture. The Local Galactic Group encompasses a volume of billions of cubic light years, but the Virgo Supercluster, our larger home in the Universe contains quadrillions.

And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.

That's what she said.


  1. Would be interesting to listen to the scientists during the time when the two galaxies should be coming together...think they would be panicking? or perhaps just telling the public, don't worry, it'll be's not really happening...hhmm...

    1. Us still even being around two billion years from now, that's very optimistic.

      Of course, there is a better chance scientists will be around to talk about the orange dwarf Gliese 710, scheduled to smack us in 1.7 million years. (Not a collision, but the star will pass through our cometary belt, and send a rain of comets down for a bombardment).