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Tuesday, June 26, 2012



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Astronomy has always been my most favorite science topic. My mother had taught me how to read before I had even started going to school and by the time I was only in the third grade, I could already read at high school and adult level. I was in the second grade when I checked out my very first Astronomy book from the school library, and it immediately sparked my interested. I wanted to know more, so I began checking out more books on astronomy until I had read almost every Astronomy book at grade school level.

I was living in a small town up in northern Minnesota, and both the high school and elementary grades were in the same building. The school library consisted of two rooms where one room was for grade level books and the other room had high school level books.

So, after having read all the Astronomy books at grade school level, the teachers allowed me to check out books at the high school level, and during the summer vacation when school was out, I spent most of my time in the public library, reading Astronomy books, and science books in general that were at adult level. I was only 9 years old at the time.

I also became interested in books on Paleontology, books on dinosaurs, and evolution, and books on Geology. I was fascinated by Geology. I had a thing for mountains and deep canyons. I also enjoyed books on evolution and was particularly fascinated by dinosaurs.

So, I was interested in the really BIG THINGS!

Yeah! Big things, like Geology, the mountains, canyons, and the oceans of planet Earth, and of amphibians and reptiles, and really big things like dinosaurs, and even bigger things as in the science of Astronomy.

And so, I got more and more into Astronomy, a major obsession of mine. I was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the universe. As a kid, the world seem like a pretty big place to me. I remember how we would go from Duluth Minnesota, which is on the tip of Lake Superior, to Milwaukee Wisconsin to see Grandma, and it was a journey of about 300 miles. So, traveling at an average speed of about 70 miles per hour, it should have taken about four and a half hours to get there. But then, having to stop for gas, and having to stop to eat at a restaurant, and for restroom breaks, the trip usually took about six hours.

Well, the earth is about 7,920 miles in diameter and about 24,868 (I'm using round numbers) miles in circumference. So, if there was a tunnel through the earth, and if  we could drive through the 7,920 mile tunnel at a steady speed of  70 miles per hour without stopping for gas, or lunch, or restroom breaks, it would take about 113 hours, or 4.7 days to drive through the tunnel. And if we were to drive around the earth's equator, a journey of 24,868 miles at 70 miles per hour, it would take a little bit more than 352 and a half hours, or almost 14.7 days, just over two weeks to complete the journey.

Of course, we can't drill a tunnel through the earth, and we can't drive a car around the earth's equator. I'm just using this example to demonstrate how big the earth is and to get a feeling for its size. This is only just an illustration of how long it would take to drive all those miles.

So, to me, when I was just a kid, the earth seemed like a pretty big ball.

I became more curious about the world, and before I got into Astronomy, I was into Geography. I had a globe of the earth, and I loved to collect maps. When our family went on trips, every time we stopped at a gas station, I just had to collect road maps. This was back in the 1960s when you could get lots of road maps free from any gas station, and so, during our family trips, the car would get cluttered with lots and lots and lots of road maps! Thanks to me!!!

Then, I wanted to know what was inside the earth, and what was at the bottoms of the oceans, so I started reading books on Geology, and books about the oceans. I learned that the highest mountain on the earth is Mount Everest,  who's summit is 29,035 feet above sea level or almost 5 and a half miles tall.  

Mount Everest is 29,035 feet or almost 5.5 miles tall

Yeah! That's one really great big fat mountain alright! Then I learned that the Grand Canyon is about 277 miles long, about 18 miles wide, and over 6,000 feet deep.

The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and 
it's 18 miles wide and over 6000 feet deep

Yeah! That's one great big fat canyon alright! Then there is the Mariana Trench, deep in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the biggest and fattest ocean on our planet. The Mariana Trench is 1,580 miles long, about 43 miles wide, and 36,000 feet or 6.8 miles deep! So the Mariana Trench is about 5.7 times as long, about 2.38 times as wide, and 6 times as deep as The Grand Canyon! If Mount Everest were placed down in the Mariana Trench, it would take a dunking. It would be in really deep water way over it's head, about 7,000 feet over it's head!

The Mariana Trench deep in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean is 
1,580 miles long, 43 miles  wide, and just over 36,000 feet deep

Yeah! That's one really great big fat canyon down in the bottom of the sea! So, we have some really great big fat things on our planet Earth.

Oh, but wait!!! 

Mars is just a skinny little planet, only 4,220 miles in diameter, just a little bit more than half the size of the earth. But it has some even bigger and fatter things than you will ever find on the earth! The tallest mountain on Mars is Olympus Mons, a really huge volcanic mountain that is about 14 miles tall, or about 73,920 feet above the surround flat lands. It is about 2.5 times as tall as Mount Everest. In fact, it's the highest mountain on any planet in the entire solar system! The base of the mountain, Olympus Mons, is big enough to cover the entire state of New Mexico! 

Now, if Olympus Mons were on the earth, instead of on Mars, the top of the mountain would be way up there at 73,920 feet above sea level where the atmosphere is so thin that you would almost need a space suit to just climb to the top of the mountain. There would be no breathable oxygen at that height.

A typical commercial passenger jet plane flies at about 350 miles per hour and at a maximum altitude of 32,000 feet. I suppose they could fly higher, but then, that would be up there in military air space, so, civilian passenger jets are confined to altitudes of no more than 32,000 feet. A commercial jet liner would never be able to fly over the top of Olympus Mons. It would have to fly several hundred miles out of the way to get around the base of the mountain. Olympus Mons is more than twice the height that commercial jet liners are able to fly. You would need a rocket plane instead of a jet plane. 

Olympus Mons, tallest mountain on Mars, or any planet! It's 14 miles 
or 73,920 feet tall. Notice how much of the planet's surface it covers.

Yeah! That's one great big fat volcanic mountain alright! Then there is the largest canyon on Mars, named Valles Marineris, often referred to as "The Grand Canyon of Mars"! It is about 2,500 miles long, about 125 miles wide, and 4 miles, or 21,120 feet deep! It is the largest canyon on any planet in the solar system!
Valles Marineris, referred to as "The Grand Canyon of Mars" is 2,500 
miles long, about 125 miles wide, and about 4 miles or 21,120 feet 
deep. Also notice the really huge scar across the face of planet Mars!

Yeah! That's one great big fat canyon alright! Actually, the highest mountain and the biggest canyon on Mars are not just great big fat things! No! Olympus Mons and Valles Marineris, compared to anything on earth, these Martian features are absolutely obese!!!

WOW! How can such a skinny little planet like Mars, have such great big fat things that are much bigger and much fatter than anything on Earth? Yeah! Mars has bigger and fatter mountains and bigger and fatter canyons than the mountains and canyons on Earth! I actually think that it's unfair that such a skinny little planet like Mars should have bigger and fatter surface features than anything here on the Earth! Damn! It's so unfair! But whoever said that nature was fair? Right? Right!!!

And now . . . . .

On to even bigger and fatter things out there in the cosmos!

OK, let's start with the small terrestrial planets of the inner solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, and of course, little Pluto in the outer regions of our solar system.

 The five smallest planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Pluto

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and it's average orbital distance form the sun is about 36 million miles, and it is 3,030 miles in diameter, much smaller than the planet Earth. Venus orbits around the sun at a distance of 67 million miles and it's about 7,520 miles in diameter, slightly smaller than the earth. Our home planet Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun and is 7,920 miles in diameter. Mars is at 142 million miles from the sun and is 4,220 miles in diameter, a little bit more than half the size of the Earth. And finally, we have little Pluto, the smallest and skinniest planet way out there on the edge of the solar system. Pluto is about 3,647,000,000 miles, that is, about 3 billion plus 647 million miles away from the sun. BURRRRRRR! Like, it's really cold out there!!! And it's just a little guy, only 1,480 miles in diameter, the smallest and skinniest plant of them all.

Now, on to some some much bigger and fatter planets, like, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the Jovian planets, the big gas giants.

The four largest planets, the Jovian planets, or 
gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Jupiter, Big J himself, he is the biggest and baddest dude in our neighborhood, the biggest and fattest planet in our solar system. He revolves around the sun at a distance of 483 million miles and he is 88,840 miles in diameter. So, he is big enough to swallow over a thousand earths! WOW! What a glutton! Also, he only take 9 hours and 55 minutes, a little less then 10 hours to rotate on his axes, so he's equatorial diameter is greater than his polar diameter. Another words, he's a little bit wider than he is tall. He is actually kind of pot-bellied due to his rapid rotation. So, as far as planets go, he's really obese! But because if his enormous gravity, he helps to deflect most comets and asteroids away from a possible collision course with the earth. If it wasn't for him, the earth would certainly have had a Hell of a lot more devastating collisions in the past, and life would be even more difficult here on the earth, So, he's really a gentle giant and offers us some protection. Yeah! It's really kind of  nice to have him around. Kudos to you, Big J!

The next planet is Saturn, about 1,429,000,000 miles, that's 1 billion plus 429 million miles from the sun, and he has a diameter of 74,890 miles, a little bit smaller than Jupiter, and he proudly displays his beautiful set of rings. Show off!!! But, why should we begrudge him? Eh?    

Saturn with his most magnificent rings!

I remember many years ago, back in 1979 as I was watching Saturday Night Live on TV.  They would always do a satire of the evening NEWS. One of the satirical NEWS commentators said, that radio astronomers had picked up on some kind of radio noise coming from the rings of Saturn, and recorded it as sound, and he said "Here it is! The the rings of Saturn!" and when the audio recording was played back, you could hear a kind of ringing noise, like, rrrrriiiiiiinnnnnnng! rrrrriiiiiiinnnnnnng! rrrrriiiiiiinnnnnnng! This of course was only a spoof. But then . . . guess what!!! About a year later, one of the Voyager space crafts, as it passed by Saturn, it did in fact, pick up radio noise from the rings of Saturn, and when it was played back, for real, it sounded almost like the radio noise parodied on Saturday Night Live! So, what had originally been a spoof, a satire, a parody of an evening NEWS broadcast, had turned out, about a year later, to be prophetic! WOW! What an amazing coincidence! Eh?

The next of the Jovian gas giants is Uranus. I prefer to pronounce it You-rain-us instead of  Urine-us which I think is kind of gross! I would much rather be rained on than pissed on! Anyway . . . Uranus is about 2,871,000,000 miles, that's 2 billion plus 871 million miles from the sun and it's 31,760 miles in diameter.

And finally, Neptune is 4,496,000,000 miles, that's 4 billion plus 496 million miles from the sun, and it's diameter is 30,770 miles, just slightly smaller than Uranus.

So, we have two set of twins in our solar system. Earth and Venus are twins in size with Earth being 7,920 miles in diameter, and Venus being  a little bit smaller at 7,520 miles in diameter. And the other set of twins, Uranus and Neptune with Uranus being 31,760 miles in diameter, and Neptune being slightly smaller at 30,770 miles in diameter. Yeah! Two set of twins, Earth and Venus in the inner solar system, and Uranus and Neptune, in the outer solar system. Two sets of twins! Two skinny little twins, Earth and Venus, and two bigger and fatter twins, Uranus and Neptune. Yeah! Uh huh! Two sets of twins. The sun and all the planets, well . . . we're just one great big happy family! I love it! I love it!

And now, on to the biggest and fattest member of our solar family, The Sun himself!

 The Sun and all the planets compared

The sun is 865,000 miles in diameter. That bad boy is really huge and enormously obese! He could easily swallow a million Earths! Yeah! A super glutton! In fact, he could have all the planets in our solar system for lunch! Hell, it would still be only a light snack for him! It would be like me drinking some beer from a thimble, or eating just one potato chip! Remember the Lay's Potato Chips commercials from back in the 1960s? "Bet ya can't eat just one!" Yeah! The Sun can swallow all the planets and it would be like eating just one Lay's Potato Chip! Just look at how small all the planets are compared to the great big fat Sun! 

OK, now on to even bigger and fatter things out there in the cosmos!

If you think the Sun is so big and fat, let's just take a little gander at some stars out there in the universe. The sun is a typical yellow Class G  type of star, about average size as far as stars go. And of course there are smaller dwarf stars, but there are many stars out there that are much larger, much bigger and fatter than the Sun.

 The Sun, Sirius, Pollux, and Arcturus, stars much bigger than the sun

Here we see the sun as compared to some really big fat stars out there in the big fat universe. In the above picture, Jupiter is only one pixel in size and the earth is invisible, much too small and skinny to be seen, and you can just barely make out Jupiter. Arcturus is almost big enough to swallow a million suns! To him, eating the sun is like me drinking a beer from a thimble or having just one Lay's Potato Chip!

Oh! But it gets even bigger and fatter out there!

   Some even bigger stars, Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, and Antares

In the picture above, Jupiter is now invisible, and the sun is only one pixel in size. Antares is the biggest and fattest star known to astronomers at the present time. There may be some bigger stars yet undiscovered, but there is a physical limit to how big stars can get before they become much too unstable. 

Also, the bigger a stare is, the shorter it's life expectancy. A star like the sun, a typical yellow Class G star will last on average about 8 to 10 billion years before it becomes unstable. The sun is already about 4.5 billion years old, so it's a middle aged star, not quite ready for the old folks home yet. The really super morbidly obese super giant stars can expect to live for less the a few million years before they are a finally a headin' fo the last round up!  Yeah! I gotta toss in a little bit of cowboy lingo because, I am, after all, a Texan.

But as you can see, Antares is so big and fat, that swallowing  the sun would be like an elephant, no, a whale swallowing an ant! Yeah! Where's the sun in all of this? Where the Hell is the earth in all of this? We are as nothing compared to what is out there in the universe.

And there are even bigger and fatter things out there, like galaxies. The Milky Way Galaxy is a typical spiral galaxy. Actually astronomers have uncovered some evidence that it's a barred spiral galaxy.

 A typical spiral galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy is a typical spiral galaxy which is about 2.3 million light years away from us. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, or 11,160,000 miles per minute, or 669,600,000 miles per hour, or 16,070,400,000 miles per day, or 5,865,696,000,000 miles per year. So, a light year is about 5.86 trillion miles. Our own Milky way Galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, and our next door neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy is a little bit larger and it is 2.3 million light years from us. We live on the edge of one of the spiral arms and we are about 2/3 of the way from the center. So, if you think of the Milky Way Galaxy as a city, we live out in the suburbs. Our galaxy has over 100 billion stars in it.

M31 The Andromeda Galaxy is our next door 
neighbor at 2.3 million light years distant from us.

The photo above is another typical spiral galaxy. These are the most common, averaging about 80,000 to 120,000 light years across, each containing over 100 billion stars. Individual stars are born, shine for a few million to a few billion years or so, and then, eventually die, but galaxies can last for many billions of years.

 A typical barred spiral galaxy

The photo above is a typical barred spiral galaxy, and astronomers have reason to suspect the our Milky Way Galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy, and barred spiral galaxies are as common-place as spiral galaxies in general.

And now, on to even bigger and fatter, super morbidly obese, giant elliptical galaxies!

 The Sombrero Galaxy, a typical giant elliptical galaxy

Giant elliptical galaxies can be up to 3 million light years across and instead of having only a few hundred billion stars, giant elliptical galaxies may have up to a few trillion stars! Elliptical galaxies don't have spiral arms, and have an almost featureless smooth appearance. These are galaxies that may have been formed by collisions with other galaxies coming together to form one great big fat galaxy. Giant elliptical galaxies are really old galaxies, having used up most of their interstellar gasses in star formation, and so, there is very little left to form new stars. So, these galaxies are the old timers, the  senior citizens of the cosmos, now too old and fat to reproduce new stars anymore. Yeah! they just can't get it up anymore! These are the biggest and the fattest galaxies in the universe. 

And now, for the biggest and fattest thing of all, the universe itself!

The universe is about 14 billion years old. That is, the most distant quasars we can observe are at least 12 billion light years distant. And the universe is rapidly expanding, and the astronomers have discovered that the rate of expansion is also increasing, so, even as we speak, the universe itself is growing bigger and fatter at an ever increasing rate! Of course, the galaxies, or rather, the clusters of galaxies are getting further and further apart as the space between them continues to expand.

When astronomers say the universe is expanding, it does not mean that the planets, stars, and galaxies are getting bigger, but that space itself is expanding and galaxy clusters are getting further apart. 

And so . . . space itself is growing bigger and fatter.

Oh yes indeed! It's a really great big fat universe out there!

 ~~~ THE END ~~~