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"It's a big universe out there"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 25 July 2016. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

One of my favorite things to share with people - and give me five minutes and you'll get to experience it - is the concept of the true enormity of the universe. It's really really hard to put into words. Numbers too are just filled with meaningless zeros: the observable universe is about 80 billion lightyear across, or around a trillion trillion miles. How are our primitive just-above-lizard brains supposed to comprehend such magnitudes?

They don't.

Neither can our biological muscles move a 100-ton block, but that doesn't stop us from building pyramids, aqueducts, and Target stores. Our ridiculous ingenuity has devised all sorts of clever tools and contraptions for manipulating our physical world in ways that our animal cousins couldn't imagine (because they have a hard time literally imagining anything).

Likewise, we've come up with a very nifty tool for thinking incomprehensible thoughts: mathematics. Math allows us to understand, predict, modify, and reshape knowledge of the world around us. It allows scientists to write down in a few compact equations the past 13 billion years of cosmic history, and use those equations to predict its future. With math we can think larger and more powerful thoughts. We can squeeze the staggering complexity of the universe into an easily digestible shape.

For example, we don't ever have to think directly about the size of the universe; we can just let the math do the work for us.

That's a pretty powerful tool!

About the Author

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter

Paul Sutter is COSI's Chief Scientist. He is an astrophysicist and offers a wealth of knowledge about our universe. In addition to his COSI position, Paul Sutter is a Cosmological Researcher and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Ohio State University's Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP).