We live in remarkable times. Knowledge, information, and technological advances explode in front of us—each one eclipsing the ones that came before it. What was unknown and mysterious twenty years ago is now commonplace, and pedestrian.
Satellite communications, instant access to information, global positioning satellites—so many technological wonders that a generation ago weren’t even science fiction are now just a given.
While this is clearly a blessing, it comes with a cost. These wonders have become so ordinary and expected that they’ve lost their impact. Each development, when first brought to the marketplace, creates a buzz. “It’s amazing,” “Astonishing,” “Wondrous.” But within a moment of time, we become accustomed to it. “Of course, I have one. Doesn’t everybody? How could you live with out it?” Eventually, we no longer even notice what we once marveled at.
Who could imagine living without computers? Who could survive without air conditioning? Is it possible to be in business without a hand-held miniature telephone that instantly connects you to anyone across the globe?
It almost seems like ancient history, when getting lost was a part of life. Women asked for directions. Men didn’t. Husbands were to blame for not knowing how to read a map. And wives were always complaining, “You should have written it down. Why didn’t you ask before we got into the car?”
Along comes a little device. Plug in your destination and voila! The built-in genie guides you: “Bear left. In five hundred feet, turn right… ”
When the first GPSs were released, there was a sense of “Wow! This is magical. How does it know where I am and where I want to go?” But that was yesterday. Now, it’s a given. Just part of the landscape.
Yet if we stop to think about many of the “common” things around us, they are astounding.
As an example, let’s look at distance.
If you are sitting in the back of an auditorium and you get called up to the stage, it might take you twenty seconds to get there. A painfully long time if all eyes are upon you, but when measured in terms of distance – a mere two hundred feet. The distance between New York City and Tel Aviv, however, is of a different magnitude. Even flying at five hundred miles an hour, it takes twelve hours to arrive because six thousand miles is such a great expanse.
Yet, in terms of measuring distance, continents aren’t considered remote. From the earth to the moon is approximately two hundred and fifty thousand miles. And from earth to the sun is roughly ninety-two millions miles—a gap so large that it is difficult to relate to.
To get a sense of how far that is, let’s look at an interesting fact. The main source of light, heat and energy on earth is the sun. Scientists estimate that the core temperature of the sun is 17 million degrees. If you were to take a single grain of sand, heat it to that level and bring it back to earth, it would cause everything within a sixty-mile radius to erupt into flame. Even a speck of matter that hot contains so much energy that it would consume everything around it.
Yet the sun is so far off in space, that the rays of light emanating from it spread out, and only a fraction of them enter our atmosphere, and are converted into energy. And so, the temperature on earth can sustain life.
What would happen if the distance were less? Say 25 million miles? The heat on the planet would rise, radically. Rocks tend to melt at four thousand degrees. And life would cease to exist. However, because we are so distant from the sun, the energy dissipates – only 2 billionth of 1 percent of it reaches us—and it is a nice balmy 75 degrees in the spring.
A Yardstick for Measuring Space
When it comes to the known universe, though, distances like these aren’t even noticeable. In fact, objects in space are so far apart, that measuring them with miles is so cumbersome that it’s like measuring the distance between NYC and Los Angeles in inches. A different frame of reference is needed, so the speed of light is used.
Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles a second. If you mark the time that it takes for light to travel from an object in the sky, you can calculate its distance. Simply take the seconds, multiplied by the minutes, the hours, the days, and multiply that by 186,000 miles, and you’ll know how far off the object is. Using this system, from the earth to the moon is a mere 1 ¼ light seconds. From the earth to the sun, just eight minutes. And now we can put the universe into perspective.
The star closest to the sun is Alpha Centuri. Light travelling from it takes 1500 days to arrive here. It is so far away that light hurtling at 186,000 miles a second takes more than four years to bridge the expanse.
But Alpha Centuri and our sun are not the only stars in the universe. The night sky sports a vast array of stars, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Astronomers estimate that in the Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over a hundred billion stars. Each one is as powerful as our own sun. And most as distant from their neighbor as is the sun to Alpha Centuri. All of this unfolds across a span of empty space that baffles the mind.
But of course, the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the cosmos. There are others. Many others. And here is where things start to get interesting. To help us understand the size of the cosmos, scientists use a parable. If you were to compare the Milky Way Galaxy to the rest of the known universe, it would be similar to comparing a coffee cup to the United States of America! There are over a hundred billion galaxies, each containing over a hundred billion stars, spreading across 13 billion light years of space – that is ever expanding.
While this is astounding, you might ask, “What does it have to do with us?”
The Moment Before Creation
It has a lot to do with us, when you think about the moment before Creation, when all of this wasn’t. The universe wasn’t. Space wasn’t. Earth wasn’t. Matter and energy weren’t. Hashem said, “There should be,” and it became.
While this concept certainly isn’t new to us, it’s not as simple as it seems. As an illustration: if you close your eyes and imagine what it was like before Hashem created the world, what color do you see? Most people answer, “Black. A sort of vast, black void.” Black, however, is a color. Void implies absence of something. Before Creation, there was nothing. No molecules. No atoms. No quarks. And no color.
Complete emptiness. Absence of physicality.
And then, from nowhere because there was no “where,” from nothing because there was no thing – Hashem said the words, “It should be!” And it was. Physicality began. Matter. Energy. Light and darkness. Then, animals, plants and trees, birds in the sky, and fish in the sea, rivers and oceans, mountains and skies, the moon the sun and the stars—all sprang into being
The concept of creation from nothing requires a leap of understanding. When man builds a house, he claims to have made something new. Yet he created nothing. The wood was already in existence. The rocks were already formed. Along comes man with a shovel and ax, moves things around, and claims that he created something new. Yet all he did was rearrange things already created.
Hashem alone is the Creator. From nothing, He brought forth everything. And He alone maintains physicality. When a person contemplates this, he can, on some level, understand the greatness of Hashem. By studying the Creation, we gain an eye glimpse into the Creator.
This is a first, critical step that a thinking person needs to take to relate Hashem.
The Blima Exercise
Nevertheless, this will only take a person so far. Because it is a so far away, it’s difficult to really feel, and so it’s limited in its effect. If you want a more tangible sense of the power of our Creator, try a simple mussar exercise.
On a nice sunny day, go to your local bowling alley, and pick up a black, shiny bowling ball. Then, say the words, “Blima, blima, blima.” Now, take the ball in your left hand and hold it out to your side, at shoulder height, for say—ten minutes.
It is vital that you hold the ball out to the side when you do this, because after about three seconds, it will come crashing to the floor. Saying the words, “blima, blima, blima,” won’t suspend a sixteen-pound bowling ball in the air.
Which brings us to a critical point. Our local planetary system is made up of eight planets orbiting around the sun. And then, vast emptiness. Light years of unfilled space. What stops the earth from just slipping away into that blackness?
Keep in mind, this planet is very heavy – it has all kinds of stuff on it. Rivers and mountains, forests and deserts, office buildings and full sized SUV’s. Why don’t we just float off into space?
If we did, what would happen? At 120 million miles, it would start to get very cold. At about 180 million miles, the temperature would drop to -250 degrees. If you’d drop a tennis ball, it would crack. As we get close to 250 million miles, the temperature would plummet to -475 degrees, absolute zero. And life on earth would end.
Why doesn’t this happen?
Newton’s Law of Gravitation
The answer, of course, is gravity. Mass generates a force that attracts other bodies to it. As both the earth and the sun have mass, together they form a gravitational attraction that keeps the earth where it should be.
Isn’t that amazing? A force so powerful that it holds an entire planet in place, yet you can’t see it or touch it. You could walk right through it and not even know it was there. But there it is – everywhere. Throughout the galaxies. Throughout the cosmos. Affecting all movement.
In Rosh Hashanah davening, we say “Toleh eretz al blimah,.” “Hashem, You suspend the earth on blimah.”That’s a combination of two words—bli mah, “without anything.” When Hashem created this world, He created all of the rules that govern it: physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, and the laws of gravity. We tend to take it for granted, but it is astonishing.
The Next Step
There is, however, one more step. The earth has mass, so it exerts a gravitational force. The sun is more massive, so it generates a more powerful force. The earth pulls at the sun, and the sun pulls at the earth. So why isn’t the earth pulled ever closer to the sun?
Imagine that it were. At 45 million miles, rock starts to melt. At 15 million miles, the core of the earth expands. Closer. Closer. Closer. Then, BOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!! Planet Earth explodes.
Why doesn’t this happen?
The answer to this question is also basic, but not as well known: something known as centrifugal force. One of Newton’s laws is that a body in motion tends to remain in motion, unless acted upon by another force. The earth is in constant motion, spinning around the sun. That movement exerts an outward force, pulling along the circumference of its orbit. This is its centrifugal force. (Kind of like when you hit a tetherball. The ball wants to go straight, but the rope pulls on it, so it circles around the pole.) While the sun’s gravitational force pulls the earth in, the orbit creates a force that pulls outward, and the two forces balance out.
The key word here is balance. Precise, exact balance. The centrifugal force has to exactly match the gravitational force. If the earth were moving a tad slower, its centrifugal force would be weaker, and the gravitational force would overcome it, pulling the earth into the sun. If the earth were moving a tad faster, its centrifugal force would be too strong and would overpower the gravitational force, hurtling us out into space (colder, colder, and colder still).
Because the earth is moving at precisely the right speed, these two forces are in equilibrium.
The Other Planets
But of course, the earth isn’t the only body in our local planetary system. What keeps Jupiter where it’s supposed to be? What about Mars? What about Venus? The answer here as well is the balance of forces. But things get a bit tricky.
There are two factors that affect gravity: mass and distance. The closer two objects are, the stronger the pull. The farther apart, the weaker the pull. Since each planet is a different distance from the sun, each has a unique gravitational pull. And to maintain balance, each planet must be moving at a different speed.
For the earth, it means whizzing around the sun at approximately 67,000 miles an hour. Jupiter, however, is further from sun, so its gravitational attraction is weaker and requires less centrifugal force. It orbits at approximately 29,000 miles an hour. Mercury, on the other hand, is closer to the sun and must move faster, so it orbits at about 107,000 miles an hour.
But here is where things get really interesting. Our planetary system consists of one sun and eight planets. Why doesn’t the entire system just float off into space? For that matter, why doesn’t the entire Milky Way Galaxy just drift?
Here again, the answer is centrifugal force. Our entire planetary system is in constant motion, balanced out against a counterweight in space. The Milky Way galaxy is hurtling through space at six hundred thousand miles an hour, perfectly balanced against an opposing force – 100 billion stars, all in motion, all at the correct speed. And 100 billion galaxies all doing the same. The entire cosmos—thirteen billion light years of planets and moons, stars and quasars, black holes and galaxies. All in motion. Perfectly balanced. Perfectly matched.
When one thinks about this, he should say, “That’s astonishing! Beyond words. Beyond imagination. And if this is the Creation, what does it tell me about my Creator?”
How One Comes to Love Hashem
The Rambam tells us the way that one comes to love Hashem is by studying the Creation. When a person perceives the vastness, the harmonious systems, the wonder of it all, he feels an immediate sense of awe and love for his Creator (Yesodei Torah 2:1.)
One of the challenges we face today is that because knowledge is so common, we are no longer moved by it. To live meaningfully, we need to renew a sense of freshness in what we experience. We need to put the “wow” factor back into our lives. When we do, we have an unending source of inspiration. We constantly see Hashem in front of us.