Whenever you happen to reread Giacomo Leopardi’s “The Infinite,” you discover new feelings and sensations. The Infinite” has the “flavor” of science and science fiction.
I don’t think Giacomo knew that form of writing that we now call “science fiction,” nor could I tell how much “science,” in the modern and advanced meaning of the term, was in his mind.
You always have confirmation, however, that the perception we mere mortals have of the idea of “Infinity” in our Universe is always smaller than what Leopardi intuited and managed to convey to us in his brief “idyll.”
Reading a recent book entitled “Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour” confirms this. I feel I can say that his “Infinity” includes both.
The Infinity of Infinity is all encompassed in this extraordinary idyll written two hundred years ago, without science and science fiction.
No science fiction narrative has ever managed to lose its human character. No matter how sophisticated the setting such scientific concepts may require, any narrative that aspires to be science fiction remains essentially a human narrative with its problems, interactions, challenges, and foibles. It seems natural for things to be this way.
These are “things” that we humans are familiar with. Much of the events discussed in a science fiction short story or novel take place in comprehensible narrative environments within a planet or spacecraft. The real challenge facing the writer is to connect facts to human emotions on a human scale, regardless of the values that are typical of the Universe.
The human mind can never realize how different the measurements of the spaces of the Universe are. A space that spans tens of millions of light-years. The only way to understand this dimension, as humans, is to analyze “things” in blocks, step by step, beginning with understanding the idea of size we are accustomed to giving on our planet Earth.
A non-stop flight from Dubai to Bogotá covers just under 13 thousand kilometers, a distance equal to the diameter of the Earth. The diameter of the Sun is 100 times larger, in miles about 100 million. This distance, the radius of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, is a fundamental measure in astronomy. It is called AU, “Astronomical Unit.” The “Voyager 1” spacecraft, for example, launched in 1977, traveling at 11 miles per second, is now 137 AU away from the Sun.
But the stars are much farther away. The closest is “Proxima Centauri,” about 270,000 AU, or 4.25 light-years away. We could align 30 million Suns to cover the gap between the Sun and “Proxima Centauri.” The “Vogons,” those alien characters invented by Douglas Adam in his 1979 sci-fi novel “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” marveled that humans did not travel to “Proxima Centauri” to learn the news of Earth’s destruction.
A distance of four light-years becomes, roughly, the average distance between stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, of which the Sun is a part. There is an abundance of space indeed! The Milky Way contains 300 billion stars, in a space that can be traveled in 100,000 light-years in diameter. One of the most shocking recent discoveries concerns the Sun, which has a following of infinite planets. Most of these solar stars in the Milky Way have planets orbiting them that are capable of harboring life forms.
Getting to these planets is by no means easy. “Voyager 1” would take 75,000 years traveling in a straight line. Science fiction writers use narrative tricks to cancel out these distances. When astronomers a century ago calculated the final distances to our Galaxy, they were overwhelmed in mapping the size of the Universe. At first there was great skepticism about the idea that the so-called “spiral nebulae,” as they can be seen in “deep” images of the sky, were “island universes,” structures as large as the Milky Way, but at a greater distance.
Science fiction stories and novels move in the context of the Milky Way, but in the history of astronomy over the past hundred years we have discovered how much larger the universe is. The nearest galaxy to us stretches about two million light-years away. But with more advanced telescopic instruments, we are able to determine that lights are traveling toward us from galaxies in the universe that are 13 trillion light-years away.
In 1920 it was discovered that the Universe has been continuously expanding since the “Big Bang” occurred. Astronomers about 20 years ago ascertained that this expansion is continuously accelerating, driven by forces whose physical nature remains incomprehensible. They gave it the provisional name “dark energy.” It operates on both the time and space scales of the Universe as a whole. Something impossible to “translate” into a science fiction novel.
The story, of course, does not end there. There is still to be said that we are unable to see the galaxies of those parts of the Universe for which there has not been enough time since the “Big Bang” in terms of light-years. The question is, what lies beyond the visible boundaries of the Universe? Our simplest cosmological models indicate that the Universe is uniform in its true essence on a large scale and is continuously expanding. Another idea says that the “Big Bang” that gave birth to the Universe is only one moment in the endless series of such explosions. The resulting “multiverse” is beyond all our possible understanding.
Because of this it is necessary to understand that our mere existence is as meaningless as possible, we are so small and so unnecessary in this universe that whatever we do has and will have no real impact. We can only embrace and take refuge in this infinite chaos that will soon lead us to emptiness.