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Sands And Stars

By LC Van Savage

Do we live in a great age or what? If we want to know anything about anything we can find a book about it, or look on the Internet. So much scholarship, wisdom and information right in front of us, a cornucopia of intelligence, all ours for the picking.

I’ve been OD-ing on a great book this week. It’s called “How Do They Do That?” by Caroline Sutton and Kevin Markey. I’ll bet those two people had a great time writing it. In fact I think they’ve compiled a couple of them, and yet the stars of their books are all the same. They are “they.” How do “they” do this, or that? “They” do it like this. The great “they” in the sky. We are surrounded by “they” and they are everywhere.

I’m going to quote a bit from this fascinating book and the first thing I want to write about is that most weighty and important question, pondered for century after century; “How do they know there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on an ocean beach?” Or, conversely, “How do they know there are more grains of sand on an ocean beach than stars in the sky?” Are you quite ready? There’s really a most simple answer, so here goes; If billions of people devoted their lives to counting, they could actually count the numbers of stars and grains of sand.

Oh yes they could folks. After all, neither of those things is infinite. Think about it. They can’t be. Everything has to have an end or come to an end, even stars and grains of sand. Pyramids. Easter Island rocks. Twinkies in storage. Dirt. Rock & Roll. Everything ends. The question I have though, is this; if grains and stars could in fact be counted, what would be the names of those groups of figures? I mean frankly, after counting past kadzillion or badzillion I have no idea what numerical grouping names come next. Do you?

Back to the point. The guys who like to calculate these sorts of things make it all sound so easy, figuring out how many stars and sand grains there are out there. There is, or maybe was a man named Dr. Neil D. Tyson, an astrophysicist at Princeton University. He actually came up with those totals, can you believe it? Apparently ever since Newton wrote the laws of gravity, astronomers have used the following formula, and folks, my keyboard can’t do those weird symbol things so I’ll try to describe them. The formula that astronomers used is M = av2 which has a line under it and beneath that line is G and the Pi symbol. M, as we all know, stands for mass, and v stands for velocity. I knew that.

Now this apparently calculates the mass of planets, stars and even whole galaxies, based of course on how fast these bodies travel in orbit. Of course I knew that too. And astrologers supposedly know the mass of the sun in kilograms by use of the simple formula 2 X 10 (with a tiny 30 above and to the right of the 0 in that #10.) They also say they know the mass of the whole galaxy of the Milky Way, so in case you’ve been wondering about that I’ll tell you here and now that it’s about 100 billion times that of the sun. Wow. Big. So they say that since all the stars in the Milky Way are kind of the size of our sun, well, the answer’s simple, right? The Milky Way galaxy has 100 billion stars, give or take. I knew that too. Do the math.

But maybe you can’t, because from now on it gets just a little murky so I won’t go into it all here. But Dr. Tyson has determined that if a photographer could photograph every section of the sky, it would simply follow that there are 10 billion galaxies, right? One hundred bil stars in each comes to one sextillion, or the number one followed by twenty-one zeroes. I’ll wager even Warren Buffet never wrote a check with that many zeroes. So now you know how many stars there are up there, right? Sand is a little easier. Dr. T. once counted out 25 grains of sand in a centimeter. Understanding that some beaches have big grains, some have very fine grains, he made around a jillion calculations and decided, yes, you know what’s coming, that the total number of grains of sand on one beach is, tadda, one quintillion, or a one followed by eighteen zeroes.

But all is folly. Guess what? A sextillion is a thousand times bigger than a little old quintillion which tells us that there are far more stars in the firmaments than there are grains of sand on earth.

But no! Wait! It’s all coming clear. Yes, obviously. There are probably just about as many stars in the heavens as grains of sand on the beaches.

Or no! Maybe not. You see, our Dr. Tyson didn’t calculate the sand on the bottom of all the oceans or in all the deserts, so sand grains win. I knew that. I love this book. I hope no astrophysicists email me to tell me that these calculations are fallacious. Hey, it’s my word against theirs. Who’s gonna check?

Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.
Email LC at
See her on incredibleMAINE, MPBN,
10:30 AM Saturdays


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