For thousands of years, we have looked up at the stars and wondered what it was we were actually looking at. Today, we have a much better understanding of space compared to our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still myths that are perpetuated as facts.
This article tackles the 5 most prevalent myths that people believe to be true – but aren’t.
Myth 1 – The Sun is Static
Open most astronomy books and you will be presented with a 2-dimensional picture of our solar system with the sun slap bang at the centre and all the planets, moons, and everything else, orbiting around it. Even popular space-themed video game, Astroneer, follows this myth (read our Astroneer article next).
This is not accurate at all for two reasons.
- The sun is not at the exact centre of the solar system and actually orbits the centre itself on a very tight orbit. The reason for this is that every body in the solar system has a gravitational pull of its own, especially Jupiter. Instead, the barycentre is the true centre of the solar system and the sun whizzes around it.
- The sun itself is hurtling through space, and the planets are being effectively dragged along for the ride. The sun is thought to be on an arm of the Milky Way (which is believed to be a spiral galaxy) and as the galaxy itself spins, the sun is being thrown on an outwards trajectory.
Myth 2 – The Universe Expands Outwards in All Directions
From our perspective, we can see a fully 3-dimensional universe. We look up and see some objects are further away than others, and what’s more we observe that this occurs in all directions.
This has led to the common misconception that the universe expands equally in all directions, but it doesn’t. The universe is actually relatively flat by observed estimates and if we were to somehow be able to launch ourselves above it, we would hopefully see the universe laid out beneath us like a map.
I say hopefully, as this flatness that has been observed could actually mean that the universe is spherical, and we just can’t see beyond the curvature of it. In the same way that some of our ancestors thought the Earth was flat because they couldn’t observe the curvature from their vantage point.
Regardless, the universe has an upper limit which means that everything is happening within a set constrained space and appears flat to us.
Myth 3 – Blackholes are Flat in Space
From one thing we believe isn’t flat to another that we believe is flat. This is likely because documentaries and textbooks do an extremely poor job of showing black holes. They’re often presented as flat black disks – but they aren’t.
A black hole will swallow matter in all directions around it, not just on one plain as is often shown in diagrams and visual representations. That means that the gravitational pull operates equally in all directions from the centre of the black hole – not just on a single flat plain.
Myth 4 – The Universe is So Big, Finding Alien Life is Inevitable
There are organisations that are dedicated to finding extra-terrestrial life and despite a few anomalies, we have yet to find even a shred of evidence of any alien civilisation.
The problem with finding alien life is threefold.
- We are only able to now look for alien life in the last hundred years or so despite millions and millions of years of life on our planet. In the grand scheme of time, we are a momentary blip of advancement that allows us to even look for life elsewhere. How long we sustain our ability to do so will also play a factor in whether or not we actually find life elsewhere. For example, if the human race dies out, it could be many millions of years before another species on Earth could advance to the stage of even looking again.
- We must assume that alien life is very much on the same kind of cycle as we humans are. We are looking for a species elsewhere that must be as advanced as us in an extremely narrow window of time for us to establish that they exist. We’re not going to be able to detect dinosaurs on planets halfway across the universe for example, the alien life needs to be able to send technological markers to us in the form of radio waves or something similar.
- Information travels too slow to make any connection meaningful. When we intercepted the Wow! Signal it was from an area of space that was at least 1800 lightyears away from Earth. If we were able to lock onto that signal, we would need to respond and wait another 1800 Earth years for them to receive our response, and then a further 1800 years for them to respond back and get an answer.
The Wow! Signal was in our local neighbourhood making it one of the most viable signals to be able to respond to – when you consider that other contact is likely to come from outside of our local neighbourhood, it becomes easy to see that communication could take tens of thousands of years just to get a response. A timeframe that frankly makes it unlikely that something won’t have happened to one of the parties sending the message.
When it comes to actually making contact with an alien life form, unless they are within our very immediate vicinity it is extremely unlikely, we will be able to. Even if they happen to be in our immediate vicinity, the timeframes for communication make it almost impossible for us to do anything meaningful, except establish there is life elsewhere.
The size of the universe and the distances involved for information to travel make it pretty much impossible for us to detect alien life, let alone communicate with them.
Myth 5 – Lightyears are Time
Widely perpetuated by Chris De Burgh in his Spaceman Came Travelling song, lightyears are not in fact time. They measure distance. The amount of distance measured is the equal to the time it would take for light to cross that area in an Earth year.
So, if it takes light one Earth year to travel from point A to point B it would be a lightyear in distance.
I hope you had fun reading this space article and maybe even learned a thing or two along the way. If you’re interested in space, then I thoroughly recommend reading further on the Wow! Signal as it is truly intriguing. If you happen to live in an area that isn’t polluted by light, make sure you get outside to look at the awe-inspiring cosmos – and I strongly recommend using this telescope that has smartphone compatibility, allowing you to capture everything the universe has to offer in the palm of your hand.