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Brian West presents Sunday March 3rd

The vast majority of the universe is empty space. The diameter of the Earth is just under 8000 miles, while the distance to Venus, our nearest planetary neighbor is at least 23 million miles. The scale of emptiness dwarfs the space occupied by solid ground by a factor of almost 3000. When considering the 3 dimensional volume that they occupy instead of just the linear distance, this disparity balloons to a factor of 50,000,000,000,000. That’s 50 trillion. In a cube-shaped space defined by the minimum distance from Earth to Venus, there is 50 trillion times as much empty space as the volume of the Earth. The distance between the sun and its nearest stellar neighbor is much larger, even in relations to the sun’s much greater size. The distance to Alpha Centauri is 30,000 times greater than the diameter of the sun. This vast emptiness repeats itself on every scale throughout the universe, the distances between planets, then between stars, then between galaxies rapidly growing so large that they can only be understood through metaphors. Everything we’ve ever experienced, everything we’ve ever heard or touched, every idea we’ve ever contemplated has all taken place on this one tiny island in an incomprehensibly vast sea. It is no wonder our minds are entirely unequipped to comprehend the distances between the stars, let alone between distant galaxies. We can try to grapple with this unnatural understanding by thinking that the light reaching us now from our nearest galactic neighbor left there two and a half million years ago. That light has been traveling across an empty void for more than ten times as long as the human race has existed. But even this metaphorical crutch suffers from the fatal weakness that light already travels so fast that it strains our ability to even conceive it.

The overwhelming emptiness of the universe even exists at the micro level. Not only are planets and stars and galaxies isolated islands in a sea of empty space, but even so called “solid matter” is composed almost entirely of empty space. Atoms are composed of a core of protons and neutrons, orbited by a cloud of electrons. Protons and neutrons occupy a tiny fraction of the space of the atom, while most of the space of the atom is filled by the fast moving cloud of electrons. But electrons make up almost none of the mass of the atom. They are so tiny they practically don’t exist, and certainly not as “solid matter”. It is only the repulsive force of negative against negative that keeps the atoms of your body from phasing through the atoms of the object you carry, the person you embrace or the very earth you stand on.

In such a universe, dominated on every scale by empty space, it’s no wonder that so many of us so often feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness. The human spirit is a vessel, and fulfilling experiences are called such precisely because they fill that vessel. But our cup has a hole in it, no matter how many fulfilling activities you’ve pursued in the past, they must be periodically pursued. Music, dance, poetry and other such activities must periodically refill the vessel, otherwise we feel ourselves returning to the emptiness from which we all come and to which we all return.

Photo cred Donal Lakatua