Little and Large, One for Stephen Hawking

Some nights, I stand gazing straight up into the sky in Kailua, and I realize there is nothing at all between me and the edge of the universe. That’s right. I’m suspended by an invisible force, anchored only by my soles, to an infinitesimal, insignificant speck of rock, over an essentially bottomless well of darkness, and I feel fine. No, really.

Physicists say the universe is 13.7 billion light years old, or that’s as far as we can see. That’s a big number, but those billions are light years, the distance light travels in a year, and light travels 186,282 miles per second, and since a year usually contains 31,536,000 seconds, light travels--I think it’s safe to say--a long way. Such huge numbers (671,000,000 miles an hour!) are beyond my comprehension, but I’ve still tried to get a grip on space.

Once, Veronica and I sat down to calculate how large the sunny, little circle of our solar system is. We started with one astronomical unit and airline travel. In the last thirty years, we’ve flown long distances between Asia and America, and all those flights hurled us through the blue at 600 miles per hour. Even a flight from Honolulu to LAX, a distance of 2,558 miles, takes five hours, although to passengers racked in uncomfortable seats, the flights seem longer.

Veronica and I knew the sun is 92.9 million miles from the sun and divided the distance by the familiar 600 mph. Through long division, we were astonished to discover that a flight from Earth to the Sun at 600 mph would take more than seventeen and a half years. There is not enough Lee Child, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Robert B. Parker in print to fill all those hours.

And, yes, if humans could travel faster, we could cover more distance in less time, but remember that the fastest-moving human objects in the universe are Voyagers I and II, both traveling about 38,000 miles per hour, and both just left the solar system. Unlike light, Voyagers crawl. Slowly.

We concluded space is big, and from this Pi Day forward, we celebrate that in all of this slightly-less-than-infinite space, we were lucky enough to share a planet with Stephen Hawking. Thanks, Stephen, your vision was large enough to include us all. We’ll never see you again. We’ll miss you for as long as we last.

Eric Shaffer