Space is big

May 25, 2020

It's a stupid thing to say, isn't it? Obviously... space is big, but how does one integrate that knowledge?

Most science fiction doesn't do space justice. It exists for the purpose of plot or characters or the fantasy itself. Things teleport everywhere, how long it takes to go from A to B always depends on the plot more than the actual distance, and sometimes planets are ridiculously close to each other. None of that is an issue, one can describe or have brilliant experiences in a small universe. However, if you want to understand real space in the real world, that is not where you should be looking.

We can talk about huge numbers instead. But that doesn't really cut it. How much bigger is 9 billion light years than 7 million kilometers? They're both humongous numbers and we cannot actually understand the magnitudes involved.

The best we can do is build accurate representations of space, in a way we can easily feel how big it is. One of my favorite illustrations does this by rescaling the solar system such that the moon is 1 pixel wide. This is a beautiful toy and does a great job... but a few weeks ago I experienced this cranked all the way up to eleven.

Welcome to Elite Dangerous

Elite is a wonderful game/simulator I very rarely play. I turn it on just to experience space flight in a very relaxed manner. I don't play for combat, I just fly around mining, exploring and trading. This is not a game I play with an active mindset, it is a game I play to unwind. It is also a game where the playable galaxy is modeled to be statistically similar to the Milky Way, and it is the place where the vastness of space finally sank in.

Flying in Elite is beautifully analog. To fly around between planets within a solar system, you have to ramp up your engine as it slowly accelerates up to a few dozen times the speed of light, as well slowly decelerate to land on target. In practice, it can take up to 1-3 minutes to fly between planets far apart within a system. It is a simple system, and a very enjoyable one I might add. Even just this practice of travel starts to hint at vast distances. Then there's jumping between stars which is a bit simpler, you warm up your engines, engage a jump animation, and finally steer to avoid crashing into the star at the other side of the jump. The timing here is fixed.

And I did this for a while, relaxed away while running missions, jumping between stars and warping between planets in the habitable bubble of humanity. But my dream was to go explore. And after several hours of learning the game, moving things around, and eventually working my way to a mid tier ship for exploration, I could jump 35 light years at a time. The scrappy ships I had previously could barely do 12. Now, I can finally go somewhere!

I open the map and look around nearby for an interesting nebula in the neighboring regions of the Milky Way. Not far, 5-10% of the map. Looks like a few dozen jumps. And I begin my quest.

Jump after jump, slowly warming up my engines for a few seconds, waiting for the hyperspace jump animation, refueling off of stars I embarked on my journey. I let the ether engulf me as I go from star to star, scanning planets along the way. Quite a few of these planets appear to never have been visited before. This game has been out for several years and I was the first one there. Apparently this is a reasonably common experience in this galaxy. About 2 hours later I open the map, and I look at where I was. To my shock, I was roughly 30-40% of the way there. I had gone 70-80 jumps and I still had what looked like 130-140 more. Damn.

I don't write to complain about the grind. The reason I play is to be absent minded for a while and just explore. But it struck me right then and there as I zoomed out on the map and looked at my path ahead of me. After having spent several hours just building up the ability to do this journey and a couple hours traveling, the feeling of scale sank in. The fact that my initial guess of how long it would take to travel was so inaccurate hit me straight in the gut. And it was not just the star to star jumps, but having flown between planets I had already understood how much space there was around each star.

No number could have ever explained me this, nor a large and accurate image could show me space. Just a game, using time, brought this piece of insight to life.

Happy flying folks!