A Photon, Sturgeon’s law, and the size of everything

There’s this video of the solar system where you travel away from the sun at the speed of light, like a photon. After three minutes this photon reaches the first planet, Mercury, which looks like a small marble. It takes more than eight minutes to reach Earth. It goes on and on for 45 minutes through empty space, passing a little ball every now and then. Alphonse Swinehart took a few liberties while creating this video. First of all, there is no sound in space — which can be emulated by switching off the sound of your device. But more importantly, all planets in our solar system seem to be perfectly aligned. Which in reality they are not. Which made me realise that almost every photon that leaves the sun will never meet anything at all.

I had to think of this video while I was watching the Universal Slide Show in the Image Section on the incredible Library of Babel. The Library of Babel contains all texts that have ever been written, and all texts that will ever be written. It also contains all pictures that have ever been created, all pictures that will ever be created, and even all pictures that have never been taken: every portrait of every person who has ever lived is in there somewhere. The Universal Slide Show shows all of the images, one at a time. I’ve been watching the slide show for quite a while, and so far, all of the images look similar: an image of random noise. This made me wonder. What are the chances of hitting an image of something that can be recognised? Would it be a similar change as a photon traveling from the sun passing by something in the solar system?

This made me think of the ultimate conclusion of Sturgeon’s law. Sturgeon’s law states that 90% of everything is crap. You could apply Sturgeon’s law to the remaining 10%, and conclude that 90% of the things that aren’t crap, turn out to be crap after all. And so on, ad infinitum. When you replace crap with emptiness, you have the changes of a photon passing a rock: very close to zero, but it happens. And if you replace crap with noise you have the chances of seeing a recognisable image on the Universal Slide Show, or finding a readable text in the Library.

The universe is filled with countless stars, and filled with even more planets and other stuff. But the chances of a photon ever hitting one are almost zero. The Library is filled with incredible amounts of readable stuff, and almost unimaginable amounts of recognisable images, yet the chances of stumbling upon one are almost zero.

And then I read that the Library of Babel is bigger than the Universe.