Thursday, December 21, 2006

Why Nobody Should Ever Reach for the Stars

I usually think about stars and planets about as often as I think about pop rocks or canned meat: I'm aware that they exist, and every so often I'll think about them briefly, but that's about it.

Back home, you really couldn't see too many stars; there were just too many lights from too many cities. I'm pretty sure we looked at stars during my seventh-grade Catalina island trip. I remember using a giant telescope to see Mars from an Ohio farm. In elementary school we made eclipse-viewers. Those are my main experiences that I've had with star-gazing.
(In middle school I considered joining the astronomy (ha! I started typing "astrology club") club. I went to the first meeting, even. The club advisor was a teacher who was widely known for 1) picking his nose and 2) being very boring, so I lost interest before the second club meeting.)

But anyway, it turns out that you can see a lot of stars here.

Stars must have seemed incredible to people who lived awhile back. Without "knowing" about stars being luminous balls of plasma, stars would have seemed distant, and mysterious. I know that some cultures had star stuff figured out even better than we do, and it was a big deal to them. It must have been hard to study something that you can't touch or even see really well, especially with old scientific instruments.

And just knowing that stars are no longer is a mystery is enough to make them less interesting to me. I couldn't care less about touching stars or understanding what they are.

I started thinking about 'reaching for the stars.' In light (ha!) of scientific discovery (which, incidentally, predates the notion of reaching for stars), it does not make sense at all.
Suppose you're the tallest person in the world. You're Robert Wadlow, which you're not, and you're 8 feet 11 inches tall. Suppose you jump the largest jump recorded, which the tallest person wouldn't. Javier Sotomayor jumped the highest ever recorded, a jump of 8 feet and 1/2 inches, unaided. His jump was basically 125% of his height. Since your height is about 9 feet, proportionally, you would jump 11 feet and 3 inches. It would never happen, but we'll suppose you're extra ambitious, and in your reaching for the stars, your reach is the highest jump ever jumped. Cool.

The closest star to the Earth is the Sun. We'll suppose that you're reaching for it, even though the phrase isn't "reach for the most proximate star." The Sun is a paltry 93,000,000 miles away from the Earth. The Sun's orbit is elliptical, so we'll suppose you're reaching for the star(s) on January 2nd, when it's only 91.4 million miles away. (This should be easy!)
You reached... 11.25 ft x (1 mile/5280 feet) = 0.00213068182 miles.

0.00213068182 miles / 91400000 miles = 2.33116173 × 10^-11

Reaching ambitiously only gets you one .0000000000233116173th of the way there. Sad.

Suppose you somehow did manage to reach it anyway. (Hooray! right?) The surface of the Sun has a temperature of 6000°C (11000°F). People are cremated between 870-980 °C.
Even if you try your very very very very very best, it doesn't matter or count for anything. And this is supposed to be motivational?

A Google search of "reach for the stars" renders 743,000 results. How did this happen?

To help us all feel a little better, I suggest a modification of the saying. Instead of "Reach for the stars!" I recommend "Reach for your toes!" I know many people who cannot reach their toes. And, with regular effort (yoga classes, perhaps) this feat (ha!) can be achieved.