Humanity is small compared to cosmos

I used to spend a great deal more time outdoors—particularly when I was much younger—until I graduated community college and left my home in the country.

Lately, I tend to spend far more time in front of a computer, whether it be creating art, writing or programming.

However, I remember a couple of events that I suspect were once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

There were two routes between my paternal grandparents’ house and mine. The quicker was—and still is—particularly unsafe returning home, as it provides only a short view to a hill which dips down sharply, allowing only a moment’s notice if a vehicle is coming from the south.

If I was in a hurry, I’d sometimes risk the shorter route. However, as someone who usually tends to assiduously avoid unnecessary risks, I would frequently take the safer path, despite its greater length.

My caution was rewarded nearly 20 years ago, when I happened to look to my right and saw a red-tailed hawk flying with a snake in its grip.

I slowed. I’d never seen anything quite like that, let alone what I saw next.

Unfortunately for the hawk, it soon became the victim of a mugging when another of its species swooped down to strike it, causing it to drop the snake. The thief dipped down quickly, then flew away, the purloined meal safely ensconced within its talons.

The other event occurred while I was attending school in Springfield, Mo. A red squirrel apparently missed its grip on a branch and fell, with a dull thump, on the sidewalk before me as I walked to class.

It lay there gasping, dying, clearly in agony.

My first thought was that I wanted to step on its head and end its suffering.

I realize that probably seems cruel to some folks, but it was honestly out of caring for the squirrel: I hate suffering; in animals or people. However, I was aware of the unfortunate close-mindedness of many people.

Human beings tend—far too often, in my view—to think emotionally, rather than rationally. So, I kept walking, leaving the poor creature to its ignominious fate. I still feel badly about that and hope that—if there is an afterlife—I won’t meet it when I die.

Lacking more unusual personal experiences of nature, I’ll share something I find fascinating about the universe in which we live.

Imagine you’ve been transported back in time, four and a half billion years to our sun’s birth.

Gravity has sculpted an immense cloud of hydrogen into the most energy efficient shape we know—a sphere—and, as it compresses that gas, it eventually ignites the process of fusion, whereby two atoms of hydrogen become one of helium.

As matter—according to the first law of thermo­dynamics—cannot be destroyed, only transformed, the difference in mass between two atoms of hydrogen and one of helium is equal to a specific amount of energy, released in the form of light. This process occurs countless times per second. A million or so years later, that light leaves the sun, traveling about eight light-minutes to finally warm the earth.

Each moment, since its birth, our sun has converted roughly 5 million tons of mass per second into energy.

And it’s small by comparison. Astronomers have discovered stars which dwarf the sun, occupying many billions of times its volume. Just imagine how much mass they must convert each second!

Once its hydrogen is exhausted, the star will collapse until fusion is reignited. This cycle will continue—in the order of the periodic table of elements—until it reaches iron, which is a star’s death knell. No star can fuse iron without dying, because doing so requires more energy than it generates.

When certain stars die—if they are massive enough; our sun is not—they supernova. All of the elements in the periodic table past iron are generated by the massive explosions known as supernovae. In a few seconds, a star will collapse from its original size to roughly that of the earth or smaller, at breathtaking speed.

We think, as humans, that we’re awesome.

However, we’re insignificant compared to our universe’s wonders.

Kevin Hower oversees production and technology services at the Free Press. Reach him at kevin@ hillsboro­freepress.com.