How many folks this week started with a blank bracket and the opportunity to predict the results of 63 basketball games? I did, went ahead and filled the bracket out, and was rewarded today by losing my chance for a perfect bracket with the very first game result (Princeton, you were THAT close on the last shot for the win). Oh well, guess I wasn’t destined to win a one in 9 quintillion chance. One of the safest bets of all time was Warren Buffet’s offer to pay one billion for a perfect bracket in 2014.
Large numbers sneak up on you. It’s why the numbers racket (excuse me, the government sponsored lottery) does so well. It can’t be that hard to select 6 numbers, can it? The plain fact is, yes, it is very hard to select 6 numbers out of a set of 50 or 60 some numbers. Being a numbers person I sometimes enjoy calculating the odds for the mega jackpots. Now, I am not claiming to be a numeric snob and not ever play the lottery. I do, but I go for the scratch off tickets where the odds of at least breaking even are much higher, and you get the instant gratification of physically interacting with your tickets by scratching off the surface layer.
Large numbers are difficult for humans to grasp. I am convinced that many who do not believe in the possibility of evolution, do not realize the length of time that species have had to evolve. For some, it is comforting to believe in a stasis for species and a doctrinally-limited span of time for life and matter to have existed. The concept of millions of generations being available for nature to experiment through DNA variations is foreign to them. As for myself, I am glad that the Earth has existed long enough for the original heat of formation of our planet to have dissipated enough so that our society can coexist with volcanoes and earthquakes from plate tectonics. Add heat generated from radioactive decay, and it makes me realize just how special this Earth is for us to live on it in comfort.
Large numbers also show up when you consider the distances involved in interstellar space. A single light year is 5.9 trillion miles. Out of all of the volume of space, that which is occupied by matter is a tiny, tiny fraction. Empty space is just that – empty. Stars form through the collapse of molecular clouds in this empty space. A molecular cloud may have one million molecules in a cubic centimeter of space vacuum. The air we breathe has about 25 trillion more molecules per cubic centimeter as compared to the a molecular cloud that is the birthplace for a star.
In my lifetime, one of the most amazing feats of science is that we are now able to detect planets around stars outside of our solar system. I fully expect that we will sometime soon be able to detect the atmosphere around these planets, and if we find free oxygen in an atmosphere, we can reasonably expect that life exists on those planets. Who knows? Maybe we will find one that is close enough to send miniature probes to, and really explore it over the centuries and millennia to come. Since the sun will continue to heat up, and eventually make life untenable on Earth, we need to know about other habitable worlds that we can move to. A billion years will catch up to you sooner than you think.