Are we trapped in the solar system? Feeling out the lightyear

Before you start reading this, scroll down to the bottom of the page and check out the picture from NASA.

Space intrigues me. The stars are so far away that it dwarfs the imagination to think about what that distance really means for humans. What really is a lightyear?

Are we confined to our little part of the galaxy for the next million years? Or will we eventually unlock technologies that will allow us to travel across the galaxy with ease and encounter new aliens and planets? Will the universe become smaller for us as our technology evolves? Or will the physics of the universe forever put constraints on us? Will humanity be forever confined to this solar system?


Everything travels at most at the speed of light. That means getting to the nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, will take 4.2 lightyears traveling at the speed of light. And don’t forget, that also means you must have no mass in order to do that! Such a task alone would require significant upgrades to our current technology, and it would still take 4.2 years to arrive. If you go to the bottom of this list, The 53rd star is 16 light years away. Just think for a second, if everything goes right for humanity, one day, some little boy would grow up on a spaceship headed to a star 16 years away from us, traveling at the speed of light. And think about it, this is the most optimistic scenario so far.


But let’s look at this list now. That’s a list of the nearest galaxies. The closest one, Canis Major Dwarf, a kinda crappy galaxy, is 25,000 light years away. That’s right. If we wanted to travel there, it would be close to the amount of time homo sapiens have spent recording their history. That’s the length of time it takes for you to get to be a great great great great great great great great great great (x 20) grandparent. Of course, we existed for even longer prior to that and homonid life does starts millions of years before. Well, it’s funny you should mention millions of years, because Andromeda Galaxy, the largest full-fledged galaxy near us is approximately 2.5 million light years away. In other words, it would take 2.5 million years for us to get there by lightspeed. It’s just staggering. 2.5 million years! Well, at least that’s not 6 million years, that’s how long ago it was when the first hominid arose from earth,¬†Ardipithecus Kadabba (they used to look like this). So there’s a silver lining.

The Universe

Okay, so then let’s make a big assumption that one day it really is possible for us to travel millions of lightyears in a heartbeat. Note that the known observable universe contains one hundred billion galaxies. That’s trillions upon quadrillions upon googols of potential planets.¬†What kinds of technologies would we need to discover to get to explore the entire universe? Is it even physically possible for us to travel and populate across such distances? Given the numbers above, and the many things we likely still don’t know, even in the best case scenario, it’s not possible for humans to grow across the entire universe. It is far more likely for humans to eventually disappear in the next few thousand years and life would form again or elsewhere in the universe. The fate of yourself and of the entire of humanity seems bleak. It’s a bleakness that is challenging and provocative. It’s relatively easy to realize how small we are in the world and the universe, but the sheer number and scale of the universe challenges us to think about what is the best case scenario of all of humanity.

I think given the above picture, you can either take two major lines of thinking. The first is to consider the bleakness and the vastness and live a good life within that, coming to terms with the harsh impermanence of life and the universe. This is taken to certain extremes or logical conclusions in philosophies from existentialism to Buddhism. The alternate extreme mode is to consider that it is possible for us to keep improving our technologies until we can travel across the billions of galaxies and quadrillions of planets, believing in some faith that humanity will ascend to a god-like status, able to manipulate time and space at ease, traveling and populating the universe with life everywhere. I’m game for either one.

Why I love writing

My love of writing dates back to the times when I was a child and my mother forced me to keep a journal. To this day, I still have these notebooks, tomes of the 90’s, that have inscribed within them a curiosity I can still feel in my being today. I don’t remember why I loved writing. But I know why I love it today.

I love to daydream about premises and worlds when I’m idle or bored. In some ways, this is my mind’s natural state. When boredom creeps up on a moment, be it waiting in line or stuck without the internet, my mind will sink into a relaxed state and ideas will float up into view. Other times, a conversation or a speech, especially one I’m fully engaged in, will inspire a sudden flash of an idea, where two (or more)¬†configurations merge in my mind. It could be one simple idea coming into contact with a complex world that is being discussed. Within that sudden merging, a fresh idea is born, and I must follow it. I have to write it down.

I get similar such flashes when I’m reading books, watching movies, or even during mundane activities like eating or staring out a car. The quest then is to have a mind that is constantly engaged yet sufficiently bored to stumble upon flashes that can turn into stories or articles like this. Simultaneously, to have a mind that is alert and aware enough to remember these flashes as they pass through me.

Sometimes ideas come to me while I’m writing and they make it to the page. Other times, the ideas float through my mind just enough for me to be mildly excited about them but not enough to remember them. The difficulty then is writing a piece that truly speaks to the moment while also being true to the thrust of the central idea. I must capture the essence. Although I am now writing about writing, am I really touching on what is most important about it for myself and for everyone? Does it not only capture this moment but all moments? Does the writing speak to universals? If the answer is yes, the writing becomes accessible to more people.

Another reason why I love writing is that it’s a vehicle for learning. As studies have shown, writing is a way for a person to master a subject. Just like teaching allows you to learn a subject better, so too does writing. No wonder school is full of essay writing, the perfect way for someone to communicate their understanding. I have an unquenchable thirst for learning. From philosophy to history to technology to the arts, I want to learn how all of these things work and there isn’t enough time in the day to tackle them. But the temporary configuration of neurons that these ideas and knowledge create in my mind is delightful. Transmuting that configuration into creation and reflection via writing is ultimately satisfying. Oftentimes, it’s the practice of taking an idea from this abstract world of neurons and hazy images and imprinting into reality. In a sense, writing makes ideas real.

I discover myself when I write. I find out who I am as words distill my thoughts into solid form. In a vivid sense, writing is about self-discovery and ultimately about self-actualization.

Writing for me is also about legacy. It is like an epitaph. The majority of written material created by humans is done by people long dead. But their writing breaths on into the imperceptible grand flow of human knowledge and the human experience. Writing from great people, or the accounts of them, add contours to how we experience our days and nights. It is an expression that comes out of that mysterious configuration. I do hope one day my writing can be significant enough or true enough that it can touch someone and even many people.

Sometimes I have this problem when I write where I don’t write that flash idea with enough precision and completeness that when I return to my notes later, I can’t quite make out what I meant. A conversation with my memories and my old self ensues. Sometimes, tragically, I must abandon that idea altogether and move on. As a result, I attempt to be as complete as possible going forward. But as you can see from this, my ideas are very precious to me. They distill and capture a moment of inspiration. For I see new fresh ideas as gifts that come to me from an unknown place. It gives me an intimate vision of the zeitgeist of neurons as they fire in formation in my brain, a configuration I know not where it comes from. Therefore, precision is central.

This speaks to a paradox of writing. The flashes and configurations that happen in my mind, no matter how I struggle to encapsulate them to you, dear reader, I cannot have one hundred percent certitude that you will grok my ideas. It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the process. It’s impossible for my configuration of neurons to appear in similar formation in your brain. It doesn’t matter how precise or eloquent I am.

An interesting future issue for writing is whether it will continue to be a medium for creation and transference of ideas in the years and centuries to come. It has enabled the writers of the past to communicate with readers of the future. But if new mediums and technologies come that can pierce through the barrier of reader and writer, between past and present, between here and there, than writing as a medium might finally lose its power. If I can create a device that transfers my entire configuration mapped perfectly onto your brain, with its ideas and images, why do I need to go through the intermediary of pen and paper or keyboard?

But this begs the question, do I write to create a complete transference? I write everyday, but .00001% of all humans read my writing. I don’t write for you or for the future, ultimately, I write for myself. Writing, no matter the mediums of the future, will remain resilient for humans because of the interplay between self, abstraction, and reality. It’s the process. That is the metaphysics of writing.¬† As my ideas make it to the page, they achieve a particular solidity. They are trapped in language. Before that, they are a jumble of images, non-linear coda, and dream-like phantoms. As the ideas become real, they take on a life of their own. In that sense, writing thus becomes an allegory for the universe and creation. It is an act that is a microcosm, a little universe. It is divine.