Check out the heavens to see how insignificant earthlings are…
Just remember that youre standing on a planet thats evolving. And revolving at 900 miles an hour
Ah, Monty Python and crew, God bless em. Never encountered a gang of comics who made me laugh longer or harder than those loopy Brits. The Dead Parrot Sketch. The Lumberjack Song. The Department of Silly Walks. Hells Grannies. And of course, The Galaxy Song.
Thats orbiting at 19 miles a second, so its reckoned. Round the sun, which is the source of all our power.
Canadas pioneering funnyman, Stephen Leacock, defined humour as the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life. Leacock would have loved the Pythons. They deal in incongruities too. Incongruities like the fact that you and me and this newspaper and this country and this continent and this planet we call home.
Were moving at a million miles a day. In an outer spiral arm at 40 thousand miles an hour. Of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.
The whole incongruity that the Galaxy Song addresses is the cosmic insignificance of self-important bipeds like thee and moi. But hold on! According to the latest scientific data, were not quite as insignificant as we thought. And that applies to the Milky Way as well. It bulges in the middle sixteen thousand light-years thick.
But out by us its just 3,000 light-years wide.
Poppycock. Monty Python had it all wrong. According to data recently analyzed, our Milky Way is actually about one and a half times bigger than we thought it was. Mark Reid, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics dumbed it down for me: Its the equivalent of a five-foot-five, 140-pound astrophysicist suddenly bulking up to the size of a six-foot-three, 210-pound NFL linebacker. But before you let our newfound gi-normousness go to your head, think about our planet. Pretty hefty place. Twenty-five thousand miles around the belly. Near 200 million square miles in area Yeah, well. If our sun was a beach ball? The earth would be a chickpea. So, okay. Earth is a runt but our sun is an all-star heavyweight, right? Not right. Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
The Pythons had that right — but hundred billion is one of those phrases that trips off the tongue meaninglessly — as U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has so ably demonstrated of late. How big is a hundred billion? Put it this way. Imagine not the earth but our sun as a chickpea. Find yourself a bucket. Drop in the solar chickpeaNow add 999,999 similar chick peas. Better make it a real big bucket. Thats how many other suns there are in the Milky Way. Okay, so our planets dinky, our sun is a dime-a-dozen cosmic bauble, but at least our Milky Way is a galactic heavy-hitter, right? Dont see a galaxy like The Milky Way kicking around every day. Wrong again. We may not see them, but theyre out there. Hundreds. Of thousands. Of millions of them. The experts reckon (and its little better than an educated guess) that there may be as many as 125 billion galaxies in the universe. They think there may be more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in our Milky Way. Or as Monty Python put it in song:
our galaxy is only one of millions of billions In this amazing and expanding universe.
So lets call a time-out to reconnoitre here. We live on a corner of one continent of one planet of one galaxy that contains a hundred billion other stars — some with orbiting planets, some without. Our galaxy swims in a void that contains at least a hundred billion galaxies more or less like ours. Still think it matters which deodorant you use?
I think the United Nations sent the right message when Voyager I was launched in 1977. The space capsule contained a message that read: We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. On second thought, Monty Pythons Galaxy Song probably said it better:
Pray that theres intelligent life somewhere up in space
Cause theres bugger all down here on planet earth.
Arthur Black is a columnist for more than 50 community newspapers across Canada. Basic Black columns from previous editions of Sault This Week are archived at saultthisweek.com. Look under the features menu.