The Mostest

Exploring the Superlative Universe

The Space Shuttle: how fast is it? How fast could it go? (Artwork depiction courtesy National Geograhic.)
The Space Shuttle: how fast is it? How fast could it go?

Do you want to know what the fastest things are in the universe?  The most explosive?  The biggest and smallest? What objects do you think are faster, bigger, smaller, or most explosive?  For the fastest, I figured maybe it would be the high-speed, relativistic jets coming out from the centers of galaxies, where black holes live and snarf up surrounding matter.

For biggest and smallest, I figured superclusters of galaxies and sub-atomic particles, respectively. And, most explosive?  It would have to be the Big Bang, right?

All those things are examples of superlative things (from a Middle English perversion of a late French term superlatif, which came from the Latin superlatus, meaning “lifted up to the highest degree, most eminent”, etc.).

An asteroid the size of Manhattan may have contributed greatly to the death of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Is that the biggest explosion in the cosmos?
An asteroid the size of Manhattan may have contributed greatly to the death of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Is that the biggest explosion in the cosmos? (Artwork depiction courtesy National Geograhic.)

Superlatives in the cosmos are the topic of a series of three programs being shown on National Geographic beginning this weekend called Known Universe. I’ve been watching a preview copy of the series (thanks to the NatGeo folks!) and even I’ve learned some new things.  Like, what do you think the fastest object to be rocketed into space?  It turns out to be the new Horizons spacecraft which is traveling at toward a rendezvous with Pluto in 2015 at around 18 kilometers per second.  The series is chock-full of facts like that.

So, why study superlatives in the cosmos?

Because, so far as we know the biggest and smallest and fastest and slowest and most explosive things all obey the same laws of physics, throughout the universe. They teach us about conditions in other places, and how planets and galaxies and stars can change and evolve. These things help us understand the universe a bit better, even if what we’ve learned is the smallness of the atoms in a strand of hair or the speed of particles as they are accelerated in a physics experiment. In other words, superlatives help us understand the common places as well as the exotic in the cosmos.  That’s part of the message of this series. Maybe as you watch it, you’ll discover new things yourself.  Go check it out — starting Sunday night, January 15th on National Geographic Channel (in the U.S.).

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