Bubble Nebula (NGC 7635). Image credit: Russell Croman

In recent years, we’ve discovered so many astounding things about the universe, it’s almost impossible to choose just one to give the title “most astounding fact.” For starters, we know that our reality is one incredibly detailed illusion.

It’s true. As you are reading this, particles are popping in and out of existence across the cosmos. If that’s not enough, you never see the universe as it really is, but as it was nanoseconds ago. This is because light does not travel to your eye (and your brain does not interpret information) instantaneously.  

Similarly, something called entangled particles seem to be attached by an invisible tether, allowing them to derive specific information about their partner no matter how far apart they are.

We once heard that the rules that dictate the microscopic are very different from those the govern the macroscopic world. So what does this mean? Well, at the atomic level, the universe is inherently uncertain, in a constant state of flux, and the only thing predictable about it is its utterly unpredictability.

That said, it seems as if the macro and the micro aren’t nearly as separate as we once believed them to be (the micro might even control the flow of time), which is a huge revelation in and of itself. 

On another level, the number of things we don’t know is overwhelming, A huge chunk of the universe’s mass is missing (dark matter). Similarly, we know that despite what our intuition tells us, the space separating galaxies expands at an ever-increasing speed, carrying distant galaxies away from us at speeds exceeding the speed of light. The latter will likely signal the universe’s destruction at some point — be it through a rip, a chill, a crunch or a bounce — yet both of these facts remain a complete mystery to science, even after all this time.

Then, we are faced with the simple truth that we could live forever and still not unravel all of the greatest mysteries of life and the universe. 

When Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” He responded by saying,

“The most astounding fact.. is the knowledge, that the atoms that comprise life on Earth – the atoms that make up the human body – are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core, under extreme temperatures and pressures.

These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy: guts made of Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, and all of the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become parts of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems – stars with orbiting planets – and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.

So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up, many people feel small – ’cause they’re small and the universe is big – but I feel big. because, my atoms came from those stars.

There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.”

And I have to say, that response is pretty compelling. You are literally connected to everything in the universe – stars, planets, and black holes, even the trash that you threw out last week…it’s all connected on a cosmic (and atomic) level. Knowing that is incredible humbling and amazingly elevating.

So that’s my response. But what fact do you think is the most astounding?

WATCH: The Most Astounding Fact:

 


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