Space Anxiety - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Space Anxiety

When I was in high school my physics class was hard for me because I had a hard time thinking about planetary bodies. I could do the math and understood the concepts, but thinking about space was just a little too much for me. I would begin to feel a panicky and dizzying sensation when I thought about astronomical sizes, about other planets, and about the total number of galaxies and planets in the universe. Whenever we had physics problems that involved large planetary bodies I had to push past this space anxiety and think about hypothetical tennis balls rather than Mercury or Jupiter.
Today I have mostly gotten over my space anxiety. I can watch Crash Course Astronomy with Phil Plait and read his blog. I can think about space, listen to podcasts about deep space, and imagine the huge vastness of space without spiraling into an existential crisis. But I have never been in space before, and according to Mary Roach, many astronauts experience a similar type of space anxiety, but on an entirely new level once they have left earth’s atmosphere.
Roach writes, “every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It’s not fear (though apparently astrohobia, fear of space and stars, does exist). It’s more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming, wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger.”
Space anxiety for me occurred in a similar way, but I was not actually venturing into deep space. I was only imagining deep space from a small classroom in Reno, Nevada. I assume that the intellectual freak-out that comes form knowing how small and temporary our lives are compared to the universe itself is much worse when floating in the vacuum of space, confronted with a view of the world from the outside.
The cognitive overload that comes from our discoveries and exploration of space is the result of the size distortions of our lives. For nearly all of human history the space beyond our planet was unknown and unimportant. All that mattered was what was on Earth, but we now know that there is so much more out there. So little of what takes place on our planet will ever matter in the great vastness of space. So little of what humans throughout history have believed seems to be of any importance or relevance when we think about a hundred trillion galaxies. For my high school self, for some astronauts, and for many many people, these considerations don’t inspire awe and wonder, but trigger anxiety, overwhelm the mind, and shake foundational beliefs and understandings of life and the universe.

The Big Bang Was Everywhere

Space and time are big and complicated. Like, really big, and really complicated. The enormous sizes that we use when talking about space and the incomprehensible timescales of the universe truly boggle my mind. It is hard to understand just what it means for a star to be 150 light years away from earth, or for the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, and for the universe itself to be almost 14 billion years old. But even more challenging to understand than the incredible time and size proportions that go so far beyond what human experience can comprehend is our current understanding of how it all started.


In her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter walks us through her journey to try to understand the Universe and the Big Bang. At the start of the Universe, 13.75 billion years ago, everything in the universe existed as nothing. Everything was everywhere around us, as Gefter and her father would come to call and undifferentiated homogenous state. And  then something changed, and the Universe as we can see and measure it today began to take shape. That event has been called the Big Bang, and since that event the universe has been expanding and changing. The origin of the Big Bang is called a singularity in physics, and Gefter explains a little about that starting point of the universe:


“It was tempting to think of a singularity as small, but, as my father and I quickly learned, that’s a rookie mistake. It only seems small because you picture it as a point in space, as if you’re looking at it from the outside. But the singularity has no outside. It’s not a point in space because it is space. It’s the universe, it’s everything. We’re in the point. Besides, a point isn’t small—it’s sizeless. I had learned that in geometry class, in spite of my protests. You can just as well think of a point as infinitely big. The Big Bang happened everywhere, I scribbled in my notebook. Even in the suburbs.”


Thinking about space, time, and universe requires that we change what we understand nature and reality to be. The way that physics and nature work on planet Earth appear to be different from the way reality and physics operate in other parts of the universe, but the reality is that the physics is working the same and we are observing the same reality, just at different scales and with different things experiencing different forces. If we force everything to be understood as we experience reality with our limited set of senses and limited time scales here on Earth, we won’t fully understand what is happening throughout space and time. What Gefter explains throughout her book, and what must be accepted for all the physics of the universe to work, is that there is no gods-eye-view of the universe. You cannot take a viewpoint from outside the universe, because everything is within the universe. Whether the universe is a single dense point of all matter, or an ever expanding infinite expanse of galaxies, planets, and dust, every view point is within the universe. The Big Bang happened everywhere because it was everything. We cannot be a god and stand outside the Big Bang and watch it happen. We are inside the universe, and must look at the Big Bang from the inside.