Cosmic Energy: Cold Sparks to Black Holes

What’s the hottest place in the universe? What’s it like inside a Black Hole? This video climbs the power scales of the universe, from the coldest and bleakest reaches of our galaxy on out to the hottest and most violent places known. How and where do Earth and humanity fit within the immensely powerful scales that define our universe?

All across the immense reaches of time and space, energy is being exchanged, transferred, released, in a great cosmic pinball game we call our universe.

To see how energy stitches the cosmos together, and how we fit within it, we now journey through the cosmic power scales of the universe, from atoms nearly frozen to stillness. To Earth’s largest explosions. From stars colliding, exploding, to distant centers of power so strange, and violent, they challenge our imaginations.

Today, energy is very much on our minds, as we search for ways to power our civilization and serve the needs of our citizens. But what is energy? Where does it come from? And where do we stand within the great power streams that shape time and space?

Energy comes from a Greek word for activity or working. In physics, it’s simply the property or the state of anything in our universe that allows it to do work. Whether it’s thermal, kinetic, electro-magnetic, chemical, or gravitational.

The 19th century German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz found that all forms of energy are equivalent, that one form can be transformed into any other. The laws of physics say that in a closed system – such as our universe – energy is conserved. It may be converted, concentrated, or dissipated, but it’s never lost.

Humans today generate about two and a half trillion watts of electrical power. How does that stack up to the power generated by planet Earth? Deep inside our planet, the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium generates 44 trillion watts of power. As this heat rises to the surface, it drives the movement of Earth’s crustal plates, and powers volcanoes.

Remarkably, that’s just a fraction of the energy released by a large hurricane in the form of rain. At the storm’s peak, it can rise to 600 trillion watts. A hurricane draws upon solar heat collected in tropical oceans in the summer. You have to jump another power of ten to reach the estimated total heat flowing through Earth’s atmosphere and oceans from the equator to the poles, and another two to get the power received by the Earth from the sun, at 174 quadrillion watts.

Believe it or not, there’s one human technology that has exceeded this level. The AN602 hydrogen bomb was detonated by the Soviet Union on October 30, 1961. It unleashed some 1400 times the combined power of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. With a blast yield of up to 57,000 tons of TNT, it generated 5.3 trillion trillion watts, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. That’s 5.3 Yottawatts, a term that will come in handy as we now begin to ascend the power scales of the universe.

To Nikolai Kardashev, a Level 2 civilization would achieve a constant energy output 80 times higher than the Russian superbomb. That’s equivalent to the total luminosity of our sun, a medium-sized star that emits 375 yottawatts. However, in the grand scheme of things, our sun is but a cold spark in a hot universe. Look up into Southern skies and you’ll see the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.

Deep within is the brightest star yet discovered. R136a1 is 10 million times brighter than the sun. Now if that star happened to go supernova, at its peak, it would blast out photons with a luminosity of around 500 billion yottawatts. To advance to a level three civilization, you have to marshal the power of an entire galaxy. The Milky Way, with about two hundred billion stars, has an estimated total luminosity of 3 trillion yottawatts, a three followed by 36 zeros.

To boldly go beyond Level 3, a civilization would need to marshal the power of a quasar. A quasar is about a thousand times brighter than our galaxy. Here is where cosmic power production enters a whole new realm, based on the physics of extreme gravity. It was Isaac Newton who first defined gravity as the force that pulls the apple down, and holds the earth in orbit around the sun. Albert Einstein redefined it in his famous General Theory of Relativity.

Gravity isn’t simply the attraction of objects like stars and planets, he said, but a distortion of space and time, what he called space-time. If space-time is like a fabric, he said, gravity is the warping of this fabric by a massive object like a star. A planet orbits a star when it’s caught in this warped space, like a ball spinning around a roulette wheel.

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