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Supergiants and the purpose of life

In terms of volume, red supergiants are the largest stars in the universe and hard to find. Astronomers have identified just 80 of them. Supergiants make our sun look like a speck of dust passing a weather balloon. They are aging stars that used to be like our sun and are basically blowing themselves apart in a growing phase toward the end of their lives. The gravity on the surface of these giants is too weak to hold on to their hot mass, which is carried away by strong solar winds. So supergiants live a celestial blink – just a few million years of ambition followed by implosion and then a spectacular supernova.1

WOH G64 is one of the largest of the red supergiants. Its radius is about 2,000 times that of our middling sun and emits roughly half a million times the power.2 If WOH G64 were placed where our sun is now, it would swallow Mercury, Venus, our Earth, Mars and Jupiter. Saturn, following its orbit, would plunge into the fiery mass. An SR-71 Blackbird flying at top speed continuously (over 2,000 miles per hour) would take at least 225 years to circle WOH G64. By comparison, you could circumnavigate our sun in 231 days – not even missing your birthday.

So if WOH G64 is so immense, bright, and rare, then why have most people never heard of it? And why was it not discovered until the 1970s by the Swedish astronomers Westerlund, Olander, and Hedi? Shouldn’t something so grand at least be celebrated with a more remarkable name?

The reason is that WOH G64 is not even a smudge in the night sky. It cannot be seen without powerful equipment. Besides the momentary awe such behemoths inspire, WOH G64 has little to do with our individual lives. If it had never been born, life would carry on undisturbed, and we would be talking about another ball of hydrogen and helium from somewhere else in the cosmos.

Now take the medium-sized sequence star we call Sun or Sol – that great charioteer burning across our sky from east to west. The sun makes up 99.86% of all the mass in our solar system, leaving only a few crumbs for the planets and other astral bodies. Astronomers predict that the sun will shine down on us for another 10 billion years, over 3,000 times longer than WOH G64 will.3

The sun means something to us because we revolve around it. It warms our planet’s surface, creating the air and water currents that rotate our wind turbines. Solar energy evaporates water that falls as rain and fills our rivers, lakes, and water glasses. Plants trap the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, and we use it through burning wood, coal, oil and natural gas. It feeds us through plants and the meat from animals who consume them.

Light from the sun enables our eyes to take in the world.  The sun holds us in its warm embrace. Without it, we would be hurtling into the black cold of space.

WOH G64 may dwarf our puny sun, but Sol is still the most important source of light and energy for each of us. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how big and important we are, what titles we have, how many people report to us or what rare talents we possess. What matters are the light and service we share with those around us.

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