The word disaster comes from Greek meaning “Bad star” deriving from the astrology interpretation that catastrophes are caused by the position of the planets. Given the current pandemic making most of the world distance from each other let’s take a step back and look at how bad this ‘star’ really is.

I have thought up a scale to rank disasters and it starts at the Zeroth Degree and getting progressively worse till the Fifth Degree. In this system I would only rank COVID-19 as only maybe a ~0.7 there’s a lot that could be far worse.

Starting with Zeroth Degree, any disaster which causes minor to significant hassle would be in the 0th Degree. This is sort of a bottom end catch all for everything from this current pandemic to burning your dinner. Anything that might make a major impact on civilization but not enough to wipe it out. That’s why I give COVID a .7 it’s definitely worse than a day to day disaster, and being global it ranks higher and localized disasters like volcanoes. However all told COVID might make even a huge impact on civilization but not change our dominance on earth.

NOAA-19 satellite - The satellite fell while it was being worked on by Lockheed Martin Repairs to the satellite cost $135 million.

Making a First degree disaster of course something that threatens human civilization. Humans might continue to live in small pockets and maybe repopulate or be around to see what lifeforms take over earth next but either way we would no longer be the obvious dominant life form on earth. This would be something like an all out nuclear war, depletion of resources, or alien invasion.

passed extinction events - blue bars show the percentage of marine animals apearing to become extinct during given time interval, peaks are evidance of "mass extinction" events.

A Second degree disaster is something that wipes out all human life, but not all life. A scenario where only the hardiest of microbes or the deepest of sea creatures survive. Something like the loss of our atmosphere, meteor strike, or a chain of catastrophic tectonic activity.

The Third would obliterate all life on earth and therefore all known life maybe the sun flares up and boils the oceans off or the earth gets knocked off course and sent out of the solar system to freeze.

The Fourth Degree is where we really start to see some damage. This is where the entire solar system is destroyed there is no hope that any record of humanity or earth survives. This would be where the sun explodes, or we drift too close to a black hole.

The sun expanding to engulf the earth 1AU = the distance to the sun from the earth right now.

Lastly leaving the Fifth Degree one in which the entire universe is destroyed, something fundamental in the laws of physics that lead to a universe where life as we know it is impossible.

The "big crunch" one of the proposed fates of our universe.

Hopefully this helps make the outbreak seem mundane and unremarkable by comparison. For the next few weeks I plan on going down each degree of destruction and talk about how likely it is and what hope if any we have to prevent them. So I’ll see you next week with the maximum destruction, the 5th degree!

  • Luke

My last blog post went over the history of how our current model of the universe came to be. This is not the end of the story by far. We will forever be in this story as it's hard to see our understanding of the universe will ever being complete. I’d also suppose that there are many commonly held beliefs today that are just as wrong as the earth being in the center of the solar system.

Artist's logarithmic scale conception of the observable universe with the Solar System at the center, inner and outer planets, Kuiper belt, Oort cloud, Alpha Centauri, Perseus Arm, Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda galaxy, nearby galaxies, Cosmic Web, Cosmic microwave radiation and Big Bang's invisible plasma on the edge.

I mentioned the observable universe at the very end of my last post. Observable universe is to say we limit our universe down to just what we can see. The basic idea is that if the universe is ~13.8 billion years old, and nothing moves faster than the speed of light, we should only be able to see things that are ~13.8 billion light years away (the distance light travels in a year).

It’s a little more complex the observable universe actually has a radius of ~46 billion light years. This is larger than the what we would expect knowing age of the universe because the universe is also expanding. How I like to think of this is say you are baking bread with raisins in it, when you put the dough in the oven you have raisins spaced out 1cm from each other. If you pick any one raisin you will have the closest raisin is 1 cm away, next one is 2 cm away, next is 3 cm, and so on. Now when you bake the bread it doubles in size so now the closest one is 2 cm away the next one is 4 cm away, next is now 6 cm away, and so on.

As the universe expands things that are farther away move farther away faster. in this picture one raisin is 5cm the other 10cm when baked the bread becomes twice as big moving the near raisin 5cm (to 10cm away) while moving the far raisin 10 cm (to 20cm away) over the same amount of time. The raisins represent galaxies.

We can see ~46 billion light years in every direction because when that light left the most distant objects they were only ~13.8 billion light years away. This gives us a limit to the universe, a horizon ~46 billion light years away (a sphere with a radius of ~46 billion light years). We’ve been able to map this horizon and call it the “Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation”

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (or CMB) is the first light that was able to be released during the big bang. The CMB was discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in the 1960s. While working at Bell labs Penzias and Wilson, had noise coming in from a large horn shaped antenna no matter where they pointed it, they evicted some pigeons that were nesting in the antenna, and still had the noise. They determined that the radio signals they were picking up had to be from outside the galaxy but didn’t have an idea of what it could be. Later Penzias heard of the work of Robert H. Dicke who had predicted the CMB and realized it matched the noise he was picking up in his antenna. If you ever pick up static or noise in a radio receiver a small part of it is the background noise is the CMB.

WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) image of the CMB (Cosmic microwave background radiation). This is a 2D projection of a sphere just like a world map you can imagine this as a globe with the earth as the smallest speck in the core.

I’ve always found it interesting that we started with the ancient Greeks thinking the stars were just on a sphere that was centered on the earth, and today’s understanding has us in the center a much larger sphere called the CMB. This is the edge of the observable universe which makes it always centered on the observer. If we were Observing from Saturn it would be a sphere with Saturn in the center, if we went to a different planet around a different star in a different a galaxy it would still just be a sphere surrounding us. Even you have a different observable universe centered around you that no one else can observe.

There’s no way to see passed this sphere but there’s nothing that would indicate that the universe is somehow different outside of what we can observe. No one thinks of this sphere in the same way the early astronomers thought of the sphere of the stars was the limit of the universe, but the similarity in their geometry is an odd coincidence.

There’s many things we know we don’t understand: dark energy, dark matter, dark flow, or dark fluid. All of these “dark” things describe different phenomenon that we can see the effects off but don’t know the source

I will save talking about each of these in detail for a later post but since I touched on the universe expanding this brings up “dark energy” nicely.

The universe is actually expanding faster and faster (accelerating). You would think gravity which pulls all things together would be slowing the expansion but our observations tell us the expansion is accelerating. For the expansion to over come gravity and to accelerate it needs to be getting energy from somewhere. Dark energy is the unknown energy source that is expanding our universe. If you think back to the raisin bread analogy, dark energy is like the yeast that makes the bubbles that ultimately makes the bread expand.

To accelerate the expansion of our universe at the rate it is there must be a lot of Dark Energy. So much that it's thought to be the majority of what our universe is made of!

Our models of the universe are still limited by our technology and what we can see from where we are in the universe. If you look at a map of all the known galaxies you will notice it’s hourglass shaped, and the bottom is a little more sparse than the top.

The hourglass shape is because we are viewing the universe from within the milky way. It’s kind of like if you think about looking at the world being in the middle of a sheet of glass you can see up and down very well but looking edge on everything is obscure and distorted. Looking edge on in our milky way there’s many stars but if you look at any directions away from the plane of our galaxy we see fewer. If we want to look at other galaxies the best way to do so is in the directions where there’s less nearby stars to get in the way.

There's nothing to indicate the dark areas are different than what we can see. No one thinks this shape represents how our universe looks. The hourglass shape just shows off our cosmic blind zones. This is similar to how we assume what's outside of the CMB horizon is the same as what we can see within it.

Our galaxy like this lends lets us look thru the thin axis easily but it's hard to see anything looking through it edge on.

Why there’s so many more in the top part of the hour glass than the bottom is due to the geography of earth. There’s more land, people, and resources in the northern hemisphere that the sky above North America, Asia, northern Africa and Europe is much better cataloged than the sky above South America, southern Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. All of these factors: only being able to see the observable universe, the vast dark holes in our understanding of our universe, and the limitations in our current technology give us our current understanding of the universe. There are many things waiting to be discovered. I feel everyone has something to add to this story, aiding in development of our understanding of the universe.

I have a vague memory of a time early in my life where I thought my neighborhood had it all. The house I lived in, my friend down the block, the playground, my church, the grocery store, the pizza spot, the McDonalds, and every restaurant I had been to (I was very into food at this point of my life). I Found it difficult to imagine anything outside of this that I needed. My father worked in aerial photography, letting me see photos of Denver from the air inspiring the notion there was more out there. When I visiting a playground across town, I started to think that everything else was all more of the same, Denver maybe had a few neighborhoods each one with a playground, I of course wanted to see them all to make sure I had the best.

I had a globe but never saw it as more than a spinning toy till I was shown on it where my grandmother lived (Texas). I then got somewhat of an idea of what all was out there, how many playgrounds I have yet to see. I’ve traveled a bit of the world now but I’m still reminded of how tiny that bit is all the time. Even at home, I have lived in Colorado for the vast majority of my life and still find surprises in my own backyard. Collectively humanity has been discovering the universe in a much similar way.

In biblical times the sky was seen as a solid dome and the Earth a flat plane below it. Genesis 1:6-8 (written between the 6th and 5th centuries BC) describes the creation of the sky: “Then God commanded, ‘Let there be a dome to divide the water and to keep it in two separate places’—and it was done. So God made a dome, and it separated the water under it from the water above it. He named the dome ‘Sky.’ ”.

The word for sky was firmament which you can break down and see the word ‘firm’ showing the idea of the sky as a solid. This is a Latin word translated from the Greek stereoma meaning “solid dome” which is a translation from the Hebrew rakia meaning “thin metallic sheet”

The Flammarion engraving (1888)

In the later Revelations 6:13-14 (written ~90 CE) the sky is described as rolling up and the stars falling off it “The stars fell down to the Earth.... The sky disappeared like a scroll being rolled up…”

In the 5th century BC Greek philosophers were starting to pick up on the Earth being round and imagined the sky as a round sphere that spun once every 24hrs around the round. The stars were seen as fixed to the sphere and the planets, Sun, and moon wandered around the sphere.

There were a few Greek scholars that around the 3rd century BC that suggested other ideas. Democritus of Adbera who in 490BC speculated The milky way was made up of many small stars. The common thought of the time was that the milky way was a luminous fog on the sphere of the sky. Even Aristarchus of Samos in 260BC was the first known to suggest the planets revolve around the Sun, not Earth. However these speculations didn’t gain traction in their time as most were happy with the sky being a giant sphere revolving around the Earth with everything else in the sky. It wasn’t till very recently (in the context of time) that we started to shape how we see the sky to this day. Astronomer Nicolaus Cusanus (in 1440), and italian Giordano Bruno (in the late 1500s) introduced us to the notion of space being a place stretching infinitely, and all the stars are much like our Sun so far away we just see them as specks of light. Introducing this idea was not easy as the solid sphere model had been heavily ingrained in the minds of the masses.

Statue of Giordano Bruno in the location of where he was burred at the stake for his beliefs which are accepted as fact today. The sculptor controversially made him glaring at the Vatican.

In 1543 astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus pointed out that placing the Sun in the center of the planets made it easier to predict the future positions of the planets. However, this was seen more as a mathematical trick and didn’t persuade people to really viewing the Sun at the center. Many who thought the Sun in the center of the planets still thought of the stars as fixed to a sphere. Once Galileo Galilei started exploring the heavens in 1609 with a telescope that evidence for both of these speculations started to pile up. Looking at the milky way he saw that it truly was made up of countless faint of stars. Looking at Jupiter he saw that it had 4 moons that orbit it independent of the orbit around the Earth, and seeing Venus has phases just like our Moon was much easier described by having the Sun in the center rather than the Earth.

Illustration of the Copernican system(1708). The sun is in the center but the outer stars are still on an outer sphere.

Also in 1609 astronomer Johann Kepler refined the model of the Sun centered (heliocentric) solar system by showing mathematically that the planets orbit the Sun in ellipses, not perfect circles. This means we drift closer and further to/from the Sun, and planets at different points in our orbit. This can be seen in “super Moons” which appears larger than the regular full Moon because the Moon happens to be on the point on its elliptical orbit that makes it closer to Earth.

Astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1672 made the first measurements to the size of the solar system. He estimated Saturn (the farthest known planet at the time) to be around 3 billion kilometers away. This was way larger than anyone at the time would have guessed.

None of this changed the concept of what was beyond the planets. It wasn’t until 1718 when astronomer Edmund Halley was making a new star map and found some stars (Prycon, and Sirius from a blog post a few weeks ago) had moved a little. Ancient Greek star charts had them placed slightly differently among the dimmer stars than what Halley was observing. This showed that the stars were moving too!

Halley picked up the speculation that the stars were just like our Sun but far away. Assuming Sirius is the same brightness as our Sun Halley calculated it would have to be 2 light years away (making him the first to measure distances in light years). Sirius is much brighter than our Sun so this was way off, Sirius is more like 8.6ly away.

In 1838 to get a real Idea of the distance to the stars astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel used paralax. Just like your two eyes gives you depth perception, parallax gives astronomers depth perception to the stars. If you look up at a star close one eye and cover it with your thumb then, switch eyes you will see your thumb move and no longer cover the star. Your brain takes these two images and realizes your thumb is closer than the star because it moves. To do this with the stars we need two images from much further apart, and our orbit around the Sun gives us that. If we take a picture of the sky tonight then, wait 6 months when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun, halfway around our orbit, and take another picture we’ll have two images of the sky from each side of the Sun. Now comparing these two images we might notice some stars move very slightly while others appear to not move at all. Knowing the Earth-Sun distance and the angle at which the closest stars move we can get a highly accurate measurement of the distances to the stars.

an example of parallax

Bessel found these distances to be astonishingly huge! The closest Alpha Centauri was 4.3 light years away. In doing so Bessel finally smashed the idea of a sphere with stars outside the planets, and tremendously increased the size of the Universe.

Measurements of the galaxy started to take shape looking at the milky way which makes a circle around the sky it was apparent that stars preferred this region of the sky. Scholar Immanuel Kant in 1755 proposed that just like the planets orbit the Sun in a flat ring maybe the stars orbit the milky way in a flat plane. He also concluded because the milky way extends all the way around Earth we must be towards the center of the galaxy. In 1785 astronomer William Herschel confirmed Kant’s speculation by taking a survey of the stars. He called this star system we are in the “galaxy”. Nebulae were well known and studied objects at the time, while categorizing nebula there were some known as ‘spiral nebulae’ that didn’t quite fit. Some of these nebula such as the Magnetic clouds and “The great nebula in Andromeda” could be seen with the naked eye. Kant proposed that these were other star systems or “Island Universes”. This conjecture was debated among astronomers until 1936 when astronomer Edwin Hubble, using the new 100-inch telescope, was able to estimate the distance of these nebulae and found them to be much further than any thing that could be within our own galaxy.

Like my realization that I will never get to visit every playground, in 1936 was when accepted everything we know, our galaxy, was just a tiny fraction of what was out there. Our Earth is no longer in the center of the planets, our Sun is no longer the center of our galaxy and our galaxy is no longer unique. As of 2016 NASA estimates there to be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe.