The late Dr Carl Sagan summed it all up for us, saying “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” And these words have never rang more true than now, with the recent discovery that there are approximately three times more stars in the universe than previously suggested. Instead of 100 sextillion there are 300 sextillion, according to the estimate contained in a study recently published on-line in the journal Nature.
Even for astronomers, 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 is a huge number to grasp. It is a 3 followed by 23 zeroes. And you thought the US national debt was large? Harvard astrophysicist Charlie Conroy compared it to being equal to the number of all individual cells in all the humans on earth.This is a truly staggering statistic when you consider there are nearly 7 billion of us.
Conroy and his research partner Yale University astronomer Pieter van Dokkum, with the help of powerful telescopes such as the Keck in Hawaii, discovered that a third of the galaxies out there are elliptical, not spiral-shaped like our Milky Way as was assumed. These elliptical galaxies are believed to each contain 1 trillion to 10 trillion stars, quite a few more than prior estimates of 100 billion to 1 trillion. This includes 10 to 20 times more red dwarfs, the most common and abundant stars in the sky.
For the past few weeks, some astronomers have been buzzing about his findings, and many apparently are not happy about them, said astronomer Richard Ellis of the California Institute of Technology. The paper challenges the assumption of “a more orderly universe” and gives credence to “the idea that the universe is more complicated than we think,” Ellis said. “It’s a little alarmist.” Ellis said it is too early to tell if van Dokkum is right or wrong, but his work is shaking up the field “like a cat among pigeons,” and Van Dokkum agreed, saying, “Frankly, it’s a big pain.”
Ellis went on to say the new study does make sense but that its biggest weakness might be “the assumption that the chemical composition of dwarf stars is the same in elliptical galaxies as in the Milky Way. That might be wrong,” Ellis said. “If it is, it would mean there are only five times more red dwarf stars in elliptical galaxies than previously thought, instead of 10 or 20” van Dokkum agreed.
We’ve come a long way since Nicolaus Copernicus told us the earth goes around the sun; and later Newton, Einstein and others kept the ball rolling . One could speculate that if Dr. Carl Sagan were still among us (he would have been 76 years old on December 20, 2010) a special “Cosmos” episode would soon air on this new discovery. And just as Johnny Carson and others loved to mimic his famous distinct pronunciation of “billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars,” you can imagine todays’ comedians would have had some fun with this new one.