Why Does Size Matter Not?

I’ve been home sick for a couple of days, and I’m feeding my son breakfast before getting him off to kindergarten and then collapsing on the couch. He loves it. He’s taking the opportunity to ask me questions (“how would you blow up a planet?”), and talk to me, and show off his progress reading.

“Dad,” he asks, “what did Yoda mean when he told Luke that size matters not when your ally is the Force?”

“Well, son,” I say, trying to use this as a teaching moment, “it’s all about how he lifted the X-wing. Did he use his muscles, and drag it out of the swamp?”

“No,” my son said.

“You’re right. He used the Force.” I leaned forward, just a little. “And he meant that, if you believe in yourself and believe you can succeed, you can do anything you want.”

He considered that, then last ones at me. “Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“Would you rather fly an X-wing, or the Death Star?”

This is going to be a little different, isn’t it?

Yep. Believe it or not, this isn’t a science blog. It’s a blog dedicated to trying to answer my son’s questions. It’s just that, most of the time, he asks questions that I can answer with science.

Size matters not

This really isn’t one of those questions. I mean, sure. There are probably studies on confidence and how it generates success. But that’s not the point, not really.

My son is six. To him, the world is a huge, exciting place filled with wonder and possibility and excitement. And, thanks to him, I’m being reminded that the world is filled with wonder and possibility and excitement. So, as I see it, it’s my job to encourage him and teach him and help him take advantage of everything the world offers.

That starts with confidence.

See, I’m well aware that there are things that are by definition impossible. But I’m also aware that, all too often, we look at things that are merely difficult and declare them “impossible”. “I can’t get out of debt.” “My family can’t make it on one income.” “I’ll never get in shape.” “I’ll never be able to retire.” A million fears become a million reasons to never try.

I don’t want my son to learn that. Not from me, anyway. “Dad,” he’ll say, “I’m going to build a robot!” Or he’ll declare to me that he’s going to build a speeder bike, or a lightsaber, or buy a house next to us so we won’t get lonely, or that he’s going to fly. And it would be easy to accidentally crush his dreams, in the name of “teaching” him.  Instead, I try to respond with this: “Cool! That might be hard, though. How should we start?”

“So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

For the record, we have never built a robot, or a speeder bike, or a lightsaber that works outside our imaginations. That’s mostly due to the fact that sticks and rocks and Legos and paper aren’t the optimal components for such things. But we’ve spent hours working on them, and chasing each other with them, and playing and learning.

My son’s got plenty of time to learn that some things may very well be actually impossible. Right now, though, he’s learning a more important lesson: if you fail, and you still want to do it, try doing it a different way.

“Size matters not, when your ally is the Force.” Sure, I can’t teach my son to move an X-wing with his mind. But I can teach him that it can be moved, and that he can use his mind to figure out the way. And I can teach him to try again, and try something different, if he doesn’t succeed. And to remember that you don’t fail unless you give up.

In the process, maybe I’ll learn it again for myself.

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Where Is Heaven?

Several months ago, we took a family trip to my dad’s grave. It’s something I like to do annually, either on Memorial Day or near Halloween, as a way of remembering my father.
Last year, we went shortly after Halloween – the first time since my son was born that we made the trip. Both my wife and I felt that he was too young before that to go to a cemetery.

Keep this fact in mind, because it will momentarily be important background information.

One day, out of the blue, my son looks at me and asks “Daddy, where’s heaven?”

This is one of those interesting questions that a five-year-old can come up with.  “Well,” I say, “different people have different beliefs about…”

“I’ve been there,” he declares.

“What?”  Followed by “You have? When?”

“When I saw my great-great-great-grandfather.”

No idea what he’s talking about here. Plus, he’s only got the vaguest grasp on what a great-grandparent is anyway. “You did? When?”

He gives me that exasperated five-year-old look. “Remember? It had all the white stones in the ground.”

I stare at him for a minute, and then it clicks. “You mean the cemetery? When we saw your Grandpa Gant’s grave?”

“Yes!” he declares. “Where is it?”

Since then, I’ve tried more than once to convince him that cemeteries aren’t heaven. But, because this blog is all about answering my son’s questions – no matter how strange – let’s take a stab at this.

The Cemetery

CampNelson

Let’s start with where my son thinks Heaven is. My fater is buried at the Camp Nelson National Cemetery in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Based on this, Heaven started out as a US Army camp in the American Civil War, used as a supply base, a hospital, and an enlistment station for African-American soldiers.

The cemetery itself started out as a small cemetery to bury soldiers who died at the hospital. The site became a National Cemetery in 1866, and in 1868 Civil War dead from nearby towns in Kentucky were relocated to the camp and reinterred. At present, only the following people can be buried there:

  • Members of the armed forces how have met minimum active duty requirements and who did not receive a dishonorable discharge.
  • Spouses and surviving spouses of the above.
  • Minor dependent children of the above (and, under certain conditions, unmarried adult children)

So, according to my son, the surest path to Heaven is to join the US Armed Forces and then follow US-27 south from Lexington, and then hang a left on Danville Road. Clearly, this is not a consensus opinion.

Beliefs About The Location Of Heaven

I could probably write several long, long books about the beliefs of any given religion about the location of their Heaven. Heck, I could probably write several long, long books about the beliefs of any given sect of a religion about the location of Heaven.  Fascinating as that might be, it’s far beyond the scope of this blog. So, I’m going to focus on the major religions of the world.

To decide which religions are the “major” ones, I used demographic information from the Pew Research Center. As of 2011, the largest religions in the world were Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – together, they account for 76.8% of the world’s population.

Christianity

It can be argued that the writers of the New Testament believed that there was a location of some sort for Heaven – physical descriptions abound (streets of gold, mansions, and so forth). The closest the New Testament gets to giving that location, though, is in 2 Corinthians 12:2:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

However, the consensus opinion among modern Christians is that the “Third Heaven” is not a specific, physical place – it is the dwelling place of God, and the descriptions are metaphors instead of literal places and things.  It’s a real place, but it’s a spiritually real that doesn’t have a physical location.  Although the terms are never specifically used in the Bible, the “first heaven” is the sky and the “second heaven” is space (or, more accurately, where the sun, moon, and star are found).

Islam

Much like Christianity, Janna (Paradise or Heaven) has a very physical description in the suras of the Qur’an – it is described as a garden, with rivers of water and milk and wine, with fruit trees and golden thrones and palaces.  Also, much like Christianity, Janna is not generally believed to be a physical location – it is a spiritual thing.  (I think.)

Hinduism

Not knowing much about Hindu beliefs at all, I’ll just quote from Hinduism: The Ideas of Heaven and Hell and hope that, since it matches up with a few other sources I found online, this was a good source:

According to the Hindu Puranas, there are fourteen worlds in the universe – the seven upper and the seven lower. The seven upper worlds are Bhuh, Bhavah, Swah, Mahah, Janah. Tapah, and Satyam; and the seven nether worlds are Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Rasatala, Talatala, Mahatala, and Patala. The region known as Bhuh is the earth where we dwell, while Swah is the celestial world to which people repair after death to enjoy the reward of their righteous actions on earth. Bhuvah is the region between the two. Janah, Tapah, and Satyam constitute Brahmaloka, or the highest heaven, where fortunate souls repair after death and enjoy spiritual communion with the personal God, and at the end of the cycle attain liberation, though a few return to earth again. The world of Mahah is located between Brahmaloka and Bhuh, Bhuuah, and Swah. Patala, the lowest of the seven nether worlds, is the realm where wicked souls sojourn after death and reap the results of  their unrighteous actions on earth. Thus, from the viewpoint of Hinduism, heaven and hell are merely different worlds, bound by time, space, and causality.

So, it appears that – if I’m interpreting this right – Hindu belief in Heaven (and Hell) is that they are actual locations, but they are not something you can point to on a map.  Instead, they are different universes or dimensions.

Buddhism

For this, I’m using The Buddhist Conception of Heaven and Hell, which tallies up with my scanty knowledge of Buddhism (derived primarily from short essays and a few popular books).  Heaven and Hell are, for Buddhists, temporary places that can be found on Earth or in spiritual realms.

Heaven is a temporary place where those who have done good deeds experience more sensual pleasures for a longer period. Hell is another temporary place where those evil doers experience more physical and mental suffering. It is not justifiable to believe that such places are permanent. There is no god behind the scene of heaven and hell. Each and every person experiences according to his good and bad kamma.

Unexpected Astronomy!

Here’s the thing, though.  I grew up Mormon, and Mormons simply do not march to the beat of the same drummer as mainstream Christianity.  For them, Heaven is a physical place with an actual location in the universe.  And if you know Mormon scripture, there’s even hints on where to look.  For that, go to the Pearl of Great Price, and check out the Book of Abraham, Chapter 3:

  1. And I, Abraham, had the Urim and Thummim, which the Lord my God had given unto me, in Ur of the Chaldees;
  2. And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;
  3. And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.
  4. And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord’s time, according to the reckoning of Kolob.
  5. And the Lord said unto me: The planet which is the lesser light, lesser than that which is to rule the day, even the night, is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time is not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years.
  6. And the Lord said unto me: Now, Abraham, these two facts exist, behold thine eyes see it; it is given unto thee to know the times of reckoning, and the set time, yea, the set time of the earth upon which thou standest, and the set time of the greater light which is set to rule the day, and the set time of the lesser light which is set to rule the night.
  7. Now the set time of the lesser light is a longer time as to its reckoning than the reckoning of the time of the earth upon which thou standest.
  8. And where these two facts exist, there shall be another fact above them, that is, there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still;
  9. And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of on eplanet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

So, for Mormons, it appears that Heaven is the planet with the slowest revolution and longest orbital period around the greatest star in the universe.  “Greatest” isn’t defined here, but it could be either “largest” or “brightest”.  Conveniently, Phys.org has an article titled What is the biggest star in the universe? to give us a few tips:

  • At present, the largest star we know of is UY Scuti, about 9,500 light years from Earth in the Scutum constellation.  It has a 1.2 billion kilometer diameter, meaning that if it replaced the Sun in our solar system it would eat Jupiter.
  • The heaviest star we know of is  R136a1 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (about 165,000 light years away), which may be as much as 265 stellar masses.  It was even bigger when it first formed, possibly as much as 310 solar masses, but it blasts about an earth worth of mass off every 22 days in the form of it’s solar wind.  Since it’s about twice the theoretical upper limit for star size, it’s believed to be both created from two or more stars colliding and likely to hypernova at any time.

The brightest object in the heavens, though, has the unpronouncable name SDSS J010013.02+280225.8, and it outshines everything.

This object, known affectionately as “J0100+2802”, is a quasar.  More specifically, it is a black hole with approximately 12 billion solar masses (making it 3,000 times more massive than Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way).  It’s roughly 12.8 billion light years from Earth, 429,000,000,000,000 times brighter than our Sun, and 7 times brighter than the previous holder of the “brightest quasar in the universe” title.  So that looks like a great place to start looking.

Ultimately, of course, the location of Heaven is a matter of faith.  It really doesn’t matter if it’s 12.8 billion light years from Earth, or in a realm that exists for spirits only, or if it’s a state of mind based on the actions and decisions of your life.  What does matter is what it inspires you to do.

When will you go to Heaven?

As I may have mentioned before, my son is five. And, like most of the five-year-olds I’ve met, he’s interested in and puzzled about death. Not in a morbid, death-obsessed way. He just doesn’t understand it, and he keeps asking questions because he’s curious. So one day – it’s been a while, so I don’t remember the exact circumstances – he looks up and asks “When will you go to Heaven, daddy?”

No matter what, that sort of thing catches you off guard. But I just shrugged and tried not to get super emotional as I look at him and say “not for a long, long time”. He looks at me and says “I’ll come visit you, so you don’t get lonely.” At that point, feeling myself tear up, I hugged him and changed the subject. Soon enough, we were chattering away about superheros. Really, it wasn’t a conversation I was prepared to have.

But awkward questions, often enough, are also great questions. For an answer to this one – how long am I likely to live – I turned to the Actuarial Life Tables of the United States Social Security Administration. To begin with, an actuarial table (also known as a life table) is a statistical tool used to predict average life expectancies. And at the time I’m writing this (at the age of 43.87 years old), the Social Security Administration expects me to live another 35.71 years (to an age of 79.58). The table also indicates that I have a 5.4844% chance of dying before I reach 80.

I’ll take those odds. I play D&D, so I know that a 1-in-20 chance of failure (or, in this case, death) isn’t too bad. And besides, if I make it to 80 the SSA predicts I have another 8.13 years in me. That gets me to the age of 88. At 88, I have a 13.7126% chance of dying before age 89 – still not too shabby. That’s only a little worse than 1-in-8 chance of death. And if I don’t die, the SSA predicts another 4.65 years of life. So, call my age 93 at that point.

At age 93, I’ve got a 22.4931% chance of death. That’s about 2-in-9 odds of dying. And they predict another 3.19 years of life, getting me to 96. 96 gets me to a 28.7218% chance of death (about 1-in-3), and another 2.61 years if I “roll well”. That puts me at 98, and my odds of death don’t change too terribly (32.4599%) – with another 2.33 years if I’m still alive. And that makes me 100.

HOw does that compare to my family? Hmmm… my dad died of cancer at the age of 41, and it still gives me chills that I’ve outlived him. My paternal grandfather died of cancer in his mid-sixties, and my maternal grandfather lived to his late eighties. So, honestly, that 80 to 88 range looks perfectly doable. But, well, like I said: I play D&D. I’ll risk the odds, and plan to max out the SSA table at age 119.