Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Early December and it's pouring rain outside here in Northern Virginia. Our former hometown up in the mountains is in the process of receiving about 8 more inches of snow, the fourth accumulating snow they've had so far this year. Just outside our hotel room door, my motorcycle sits, bagged against the weather, and staring the end of the riding season square in the eye.
With the immediate surroundings so grim, my mind has drifted beyond the immediate meteorological mess to the universe beyond our little planet.
As I've noted before, I am a big fan of the website "Astronomy Picture of the Day." Every day, I get my space fix through images detailing stars, nebulae, whole galaxies, collection of galaxies, the wonders of the observable universe.
Science has known for some time that at the center of most known galaxies lies objects called Supermassive black holes. They may have started out as the tombstone of a massive star, but are billions of times more massive than the sun that sits at the center of our star system. The black hole generates a gravity field so intense that even light itself can't escape. Around the edge, a disc of white-hot matter spins as nearby stars spiral in, get ripped apart, and fall into the black hole to end up...well, no one knows where. This is not news to anyone who's ever watched the Discover or Science Channel, but my musings on this wet evening go well beyond even those far-off stellar mysteries.
The known universe is about 154 billion light years across, according to the latest estimates. Doing the math, my son, the genius, tells me that the assumed sphere of the universe is an area 3.26 x 10 to the 26th cubic light years. (Blogger doesn't do math nomenclature). I did a bit of a search, but while astronomers know the location of the earth in relation to the Milky Way Galaxy, nobody seems to know where the earth lies in relation to the center of the universe. Man's instruments have reached out some 13 billion light years, but it's plain that there's much more out there that we can't see.
So, I wondered as the rain pattered outside, if the center of a galaxy consists of a supermassive black hole, what wonder lies at the center of the known universe?
The big bang that created the universe (this one, anyway) was a massive explosion that originated from a singularity that, while incredibly tiny, contained all the mass. When it blew outward, the blast carried all the matter that eventually made up the stars, planets, and us, into the void. So, now, some thirteen billion years later, I can't help but wonder what lies there now.
Since any blast tends to clear out from the middle, maybe there's nothing there other than an empty space. But if the center of a galaxy is a supermassive black hole, maybe the center of the known universe holds the supermassive black holes to end all supermassive black holes. But since we don't apparently know where earth lies, we don't know where the middle of the universe is, or even, apparently, which direction to look.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. We have so many more important things we should be asking about, or pondering. But when the world gets too angry or complicated, maybe it's more worthwhile to contemplate the universe.
It's certainly one way to put man's insurmountable problems in their proper context.