Acres of Light-years


The universe is staggeringly large.

I don't know why, but on the way in to work early this morning, I was thinking about last year's triumph by the 2MASS people, completing their 3D model of the local universe called 2MRS. (Don't ask me how I remember that acronym.) You probably heard about it, but just in case you hadn't: using all the fantastic data and observations gathered by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) in years past, they attempted to create a better-than-ever, more complete than ever, map of our chunk of the universe. It's a fabulous achievement, and really says quite a lot about how far our understanding of the universe has progressed, and about the power of (near-)infrared astronomy for examining, expanding, testing, and refining that understanding.

Not that I'm biased on that last part... ☺

But, this morning, what struck me was the idea of how little of the universe 2MRS actually covered. I never really paused to consider it before. We call it the "local universe", made up of a hundred thousand or so galaxies. Not stars, mind you: galaxies. It's a huge space, to be sure, with all sorts of structure. large enough to contain instances of just about every beast in the celestial zoo we can imagine. 2MRS has successfully mapped about half that, I think. It's a space of a few hundred million light-years in size.

I'm going to pause and let that sink in: a Few. Hundred. Million. Light-Years.

Got it? Good. Now, why would I put such a small word, like "few," next to such a huge and impressive concept, like "hundreds of millions of light-years?"

Because compared to size of the universe, it's not even a hill of beans. It's a dot on the map. Less than 1%. That's right. For all we can study and observe, for all the insights we gain and understand, we're still only just now mapping half a percent of the universe-at-large.

To put this in perspective, if all of RIT (not just the developed campus, but the total land) was the universe, we've succeeded in mapping out a good size parking lot.

Oh, and from here, we can just see a few buildings in the distance.

That's how staggeringly, mind-blowingly, dizzyingly, achingly huge our universe is.

It's time to take a walk.