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 all a given.
While this is clearly a blessing, it comes at 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 without 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. Then, in five hundred feet, turn right… ”
When the first GPS’s 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—part of the landscape.
Yet if we stop to think about many of the “common” things around us, they are astounding.
Distance is Far Out
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, it’s 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. Earth to the moon is approximately 250,000 miles. And earth to the sun is approximately ninety-two million 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 sixteen 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 into 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 forty-five million miles? The heat on the planet would rise radically, and life would cease to exist. However, because we are so distant from the sun, the energy dissipates—only two billionth of one percent of it reaches us—and it is a nice balmy seventy-five 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 is like measuring the distance between New York City and Los Angeles in inches. A different frame of reference is needed, and so the speed of light is used.
Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per second. If you mark the time that it takes for light to travel from an object in the sky to earth, you can calculate its distance. Convert the time span into seconds and multiply that by 186,000 miles, and you’ll know how many miles away the object is from earth. Using this system, from the earth to the moon is a mere one and a quarter 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 fifteen hundred 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 of them as distant from its neighbor as is the sun from 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 thirteen billion light years of space that is ever expanding.
Yes, as impressive as this may be, it is but the tip of the iceberg. If you want to further sense the awe and majesty of this world, 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 sink 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.” Blimah is 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 fascinating.
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 twenty-five million miles, rock starts to melt. At fifteen 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 to 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 the 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 600,000 miles an hour, perfectly balanced against an opposing force—one hundred billion stars, all in motion, all at the correct speed. And one hundred 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 you think about this, you should say, “That’s astonishing! Beyond words. Beyond imagination.” You might, however, be tempted to say, “I get it. It’s great. Stupendous. Phenomenal. But what does this have to do with me?”
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, “It should be. ” And it became.
Energy sprang forth. Matter happened. Time itself began. Then light and darkness. Next the moon, the sun and the stars.
What color was it?
When my daughter was six years old and we were discussing Bereishis (Creation), there was one issue that she couldn’t come to terms with. “Abba,” she said,“I understand that before Hashem created the world there was nothing, not even light and dark, but what color was it?”
The difficulty she was having is that we are so used to the world as it is, that the concept of before Creation is hard to imagine. The idea of the absence of anything—before there was a world, before there was even matter, space, or any substance to hold it in—is difficult for us corporeal beings to fathom. We keep falling back to our way of viewing things in a physical setting, and absolute void has no place in our world.
But let’s try for a moment to envision a vast empty nothingness. There is no space, no matter. There isn’t even time because time only exists in a physical world. And Creation begins. Out of nothing—because there is nothing. From nowhere—because there is no place. At this absolute first moment in time, Hashem brings forth matter, the very building blocks of creation. Then come darkness and light, not even separated, but intermingled—a patch of light here, a flash of darkness there. Next come the heavens and the earth, then the planets and the stars, the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all of the animals of the earth. And on the final day, at almost the last moment of Creation, comes man.
Ex Nihilo Creation
This is unlike anything in our experience—and is a point that is often missed. 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 there. 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 conceived of, designed, and formed it. Every element had to be thought out. There were no givens. There was no imitating or accepting the status quo because before Creation, there was nothing to imitate or use as a model.
When we take this huge leap of understanding, we begin to recognize the wonder that is all about us, and the wisdom that is manifest throughout Creation. Most importantly, from this we gain a glimpse of Hashem. For the house itself attests to its Creator. “And if this is the Creation, what does it tell me about my Creator?”