by Mike McNamee Published 01/12/2016
The title is from the Marcus Brigstocke radio series which introduces people to things that they have never experienced before. The relevance of that to this feature is that your editor has never seen the Milky Way! This is in common with many others - 85% of the population have never experienced a truly dark sky and only 2% have seen the Milky Way with their own eyes. For McNamee, then this is a bucket-list item - it is a perverse thing that as a scientist I have blown things up to 21 million times their size on microscopes but never looked the other way at the stars and reduced them down.
Discussions on the stars and the universe are an ever-present on our TV screens and there is no doubt that the output from the Hubble Space telescope has provided some hauntingly beautiful images from deep space. Orbiting above all the rubbish in our atmosphere, Hubble has been able to pull in the light and radiation from stars and galaxies which moved away from their start position not too long after the Big Bang and are now so faint that even Hubble had to use exposure times of 10.5 hours between July 2002 and September 2005 to gather in the light sufficiently to create a Tiff file! The conclusion of the scientists examining the data is that the number of galaxies in the universe is 10 times larger than originally thought and that 90% of them are invisible with the presently available technology - they are simply too faint and too far away. The previous estimate was that there were 200 billion galaxies so the number raises to an equally ungraspable 2,000 billion. Each galaxy averages about 100 billion stars (there are 100-400 billion in our own Milky Way) so when you multiply up the number we are getting short of space to type in all the noughts! We need other ways to contemplate these numbers so how about the number being 100 stars for every grain of sand on Earth? This is what the new number suggests. Do you need another mind-blowing number? The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest to us here on Earth but when you look up at it (probably with at least a pair of binoculars) then the light hitting your eyes set off before man had evolved on our planet.
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