The Universe is a Really, Really Big Place. Spaciousness in Astronomy and in Story, by Deborah J. Ross

I’ve just spent a week at Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, an intensive introduction to the wonders of the universe. It will take some time to sort through all the amazing things I’ve learned, but what’s uppermost in my mind is a concept of particular relevance not only to the accurate representation of astronomical science but to writing itself. It’s this: the universe is unbelievably big, vast beyond the scale of human experience.

This enormousness includes time as well as distance, speed as well as heat and a whole bunch of other things, all of them so far beyond the perception of our senses that scientists can describe them only with mathematical models and scientific notation. The rest of us are reduced to words like “big,” “vast,” and the always-popular “ginormous.” When we try to imagine these things, we all too often think in terms of things we already know: the length of a table or a football field, or the distance we can walk in an hour. If we’ve had the experience of driving across the United States, we understand how much open space stretches between cities. The greatest distance most of us have traveled is circumnavigating the Earth, a bit more than 40,000 kilometers (or roughly 25,000 miles) at the equator. That’s big by our scale. Think of the Pacific Ocean or the barren reaches of Siberia, the Great Plains or the Himalayas or the savannah of Africa. For me, those mountains and oceans and plains are about the limit of what I can comprehend by direct experience.

40,000 kilometers is miniscule compared to the distance to the Moon (384,000 km) or to the Sun (150,000,000 km or about 8 light-minutes, which is the distance light can travel in 8 minutes). Our solar system is 100 times that big. There’s so much space between the planets that it would be almost impossible to observe more than one at the same time, and that’s not taking into account that planets are found in different parts of their orbits at any given time. (So much for scenes in which a space ship approaches Earth by passing the outer planets, one by one!)

At this point, our ordinary measures, like kilometers, become useless and we must use light-years or parsecs (sorry, George Lucas, but one parsec is 3 1/4 light years, or 206,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun). It turns out that, as empty as our solar system seems, with relatively enormous distances between relatively tiny globes, that we are surrounded by an even larger empty zone. Just as planets are widely separated, so are stars. Although we have a few neighbors like Alpha Centauri (about 4 light years away), typical interstellar distances are several times that. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a disc about 75,000 light years in diameter (and contains billions of stars). We are one galaxy among a local cluster spanning millions of light years. The observable universe extends for billions of light years (14, by our current measurements) and contains roughly 100 to 200 billion galaxies.

That’s only half the picture, because it turns out that all the “empty space” between planets, between stars, and between galaxies isn’t really empty. The Milky Way, for example, is filled with clouds of gas and dust particles containing, among other things, carbon, silicon carbide, amorphous silicates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, water ice, and polyformaldehyde. Under the right circumstances, these clouds provide the material for the formation of new stars and their planets. In addition to matter, the “void” contains Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, a sort of echo of the Big Bang, with a temperature of 2.73 K. So emptiness is far from empty.

Now that you’ve waded through all these numbers, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with writing. It has to do with imagination. When I begin to work on a story, my mind is a whole lot like the local universe. Here and there, there’s a bright object, an idea. Sometimes, they are no more than clouds of dust that begin to take shape, condensing as they rotate and as their constituent particles collide with one another and gradually “accrete.” Once in a while, I begin with a luminous object that seems lovely and stable and usable just as it is, only to have it propel itself off the main sequence into a giant, bloated idea-oid star that will threaten to take over the entire novel if I’m not vigilant. Other ideas are like red dwarfs, small and unglamorous, but burning long and faithfully, the “work horses” of the book. And then, there’s all this empty space, the gaps and blocks and areas devoid of inspiration.

What I need to remember is that the universe between my ears, the environment in which I create my stories, is like the interstellar void. It’s not empty, although it may fool me into thinking that it is. I need to remember that it’s filled with the residual energy of creation and the stuff from which new stars will be born.

It’s easy to become fixated on those hot, charismatic stars and to forget that what happens between the peak moments is just as important and as worthy of my creative care. If I fill the gaps between intense, world-altering crises with boring pablum, my readers are apt to find those sections as yawn-worthy as I do. It isn’t necessary that every passage be riddled with tension; it is, however, a mark of good story-telling to enrich every aspect of one’s writing. This can include the careful selection of physical and sensory details to gently evoke a larger world “off the page,” or some small nuance that gives dimension to a secondary character, or simply the sense that this world extends beyond the current scene, with its own history, people, customs, landscape, and mythology. When we inflict these things at high decibels and in lurid color upon our readers, we saturate the space of the story, even as a supernova is so bright that dimmer objects can no longer be observed. Instead, we can create that intergalactic medium, humming with exotic molecules and eternal radiation. We can give our stories depth through contrast — a quasar here, a cloud of hydrogen gas there, a rocky moon yonder, a dim and distant star beckoning us onward.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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The Universe is a Really, Really Big Place. Spaciousness in Astronomy and in Story, by Deborah J. Ross — 2 Comments

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