PROVO — Sporting a glittering sun- and star-decorated vest, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson encouraged BYU students to see themselves as important parts of the universe, rather than insignificant specks on a cosmic stage.
During a lecture Tuesday in the Marriott Center, Tyson displayed one of the deepest images ever obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Every speck of light you see is not a star," he said. "It is an entire galaxy of stars, each speck of light containing 100 billion stars itself. When you look up at that, do you feel small, or do you feel large? I, for one, feel large, and I invite you to feel large, as well."
Tyson reminded the audience that they are made from the same chemical elements that compose the universe: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen.
"We have a genetic kinship with all life on earth, an atomic kinship to all matter in the cosmos," he said. "So when I look at the universe, I feel large, because I remind myself that not only are we living in this universe, the universe is living within us."
Tyson's love of the sky began as a child when he first looked at the moon through a pair of binoculars.
After studying physics at Harvard University and receiving a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University, Tyson was appointed to several national boards to study the future of space exploration, said BYU's Academic Vice President John Tanner during Tyson's introduction.
Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the author of several books, including "The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet," which has generated endless hate mail from third graders upset over the former planet's demotion, Tanner said.
At ease in front of the large crowd, the entertaining Tyson offered the audience 10 glimpses into the cosmic perspective, from the ability of telescopes to serve as windows to the past, to the mind-blowing number of stars and molecules in existence.
Because it takes light time to travel, when someone looks at the sky, they see it as it was. They would see the moon as it was 1.3 seconds ago. The sun, around eight minutes and 20 seconds ago. Some galaxies are as far as 65 million light years away, Tyson explained.
"As you go father out in space, you are looking back in time," he said. "Telescopes are time machines."
To give a sense of magnitude, Tyson displayed a picture of a McDonald's sign, which boasted of serving more than 99 billion customers.5 comments on this story
That many burgers placed end to end could circle the earth 52 times plus be stacked to reach the moon and back, Tyson said. But that is only a small number when compared with the sextillion stars in the observable universe — the number one with 21 zeros trailing behind, Tyson said.
On the other end of the spectrum, molecules are so tiny that there are enough molecules in one glass of water to eventually scatter back into every other glass of water.
"(You will drink) water molecules that passed through the kidneys of Abraham Lincoln," he said. "The water filters you have at home are not going to remove those."