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Humans Vs. Galaxies

October 1, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Astronomy, Life, cosmology |

Pop Quiz, everyone. The most wonderful, beautiful, and complicated things in the Universe are all made up of tiny components. Humans, the most differentiated animals on the planet, are made up of cells.

Galaxies, on the other hand, are made up primarily of stars. (At least, the portion of them that we can see is!)

So my quiz question for you is this:

Are there more cells in the typical human body or more stars in a typical galaxy?

The numbers are tremendous for both of these. Let’s start with humans. We start out as a zygote: a single fertilized egg cell.

From that, we grow up into full-grown adult humans, containing (are you ready?) 75 to 100 trillion cells! Now, things are even more interesting than that, because the cells that make up your skeleton and internal organs, your nervous system and your skin, your blood vessels and brain, only number about 4 trillion.

So where are the rest of them? Moving through your body, keeping you alive and functioning. Your body contains about one trillion white blood cells of various types, about two trillion platelets, and a whopping 30 trillion red blood cells! This means every time you donate a pint of blood, you’re losing 4,000,000,000,000 cells!

There are also about 40 trillion bacterial cells that live in your body (mostly your intestine), aiding in digestion. All told, that’s over 75 trillion cells in your body; fully half of them were made by you. That’s going to be tough to beat.

Let’s look at a typical galaxy now, like our own, or perhaps our nearest neighbor (above), Andromeda. Our Sun is not typical of stars in galaxies, it’s actually pretty bright. Only about 10% of stars are as massive as our Sun (a G-type star), which means 90% of them are dimmer, cooler, and smaller.

In fact, when you look up at the night sky, of the hundreds or even thousands of stars that are close to us (within about 30 light years), you know how many are type O? Zero. Know how many are type B? Also zero. Know how many are type A? Four.

Most of the stars that are there are not the stars you think of, much like the red blood cells and digestive bacteria in our bodies are not the cells that you think of when you think of our bodies. But when we count up all the stars in a typical galaxy, we get a pretty large number, too: 400 billion. That’s still nowhere close to the 75 trillion cells in a human body, but that’s the answer for typical galaxies. What about the largest galaxy in the Universe, though, can that compete?

In the center of one of the hugest galaxy clusters we’ve ever found, Abell 2029, lies a galaxy 6 million light-years across, or more than 60 times the diameter of the Milky Way (at only 100,000 light years). The number of stars in this galaxy? Estimated to be just over 100 trillion. The galaxy itself, the largest known galaxy in the Universe, is IC 1101:

So there are, give-or-take, as many cells in your adult body as there are stars in the biggest galaxy in the entire Universe. Remember that the next time someone tells you how insignificant you are: it takes 75,000,000,000,000 cells to make something as insignificant as us!


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  1. Wow, nice comparison.

    Comment by Brian — October 1, 2008 #

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  3. […] – On counting stars and cells – Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang wonders which is bigger, the number of stars in a galaxy, or […]

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  4. […] Posts Why build an accelerator?Humans Vs. GalaxiesTrying to Understand GravityWeekend Diversion: Did I make the right call?A New Hint at the Expanding […]

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  6. This is an easy question. There are a finite (though incredibly large) number of cells in even the biggest human body, but the universe is infinite and the stars go on forever, you could literally never count them all, no matter how long you live.

    Comment by Runescope — February 24, 2009 #

  7. Stars don’t go on forever, and the Universe that we call “our Universe” (i.e., the stuff we can ever hope to see if we live to infinity) is not only finite, it isn’t all that big.

    About 1011 galaxies, each one with about 1011 stars in it. So not only are there more cells in your body than stars in a galaxy, but there are more cells in your body than galaxies in the Universe!

    Comment by ethan — February 24, 2009 #

  8. it’s also interesting how similar the most basic structure of galaxy clusters are
    to neurons in the brain.

    Comment by johnald — February 24, 2009 #

  9. Great comparison but still they say human, specifically the human mind is the final frontier.

    Comment by Joe — February 25, 2009 #

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  21. every time i look at a clock it seems to be 11:01. .in school, since kindergarden till i graduated my student number was 1101. .and i seem to just glance at random and see this number(on sides of buildings, mailboxes ect.) then right now i find out the biggest galaxy in the known universe is IC 1101.. Amazing.. IC(I see) 1101…crazy

    Comment by Rreyna — September 27, 2009 #

  22. Interesting! its like comparing huge and tiny objects that are related to each other. like the cells in the human body. Humans inside the earth. Earth within the solar system and the milky way. And various galaxies within the universe.

    It is really interesting to know these things. I like your post! keep it up! Thanks!

    Comment by Lisette Arana Ocampo — October 5, 2009 #

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  28. […] – On counting stars and cells – Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang wonders which is bigger, the number of stars in a galaxy, or […]

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  35. Keep in mind thats the largest galaxy we know at the moment… we could find another one any other day that could be 100 times the size of that one you just never know…

    Comment by Yep — April 19, 2011 #

  36. Just a question about the IC1101 galaxy.

    How the assessment of the number of stars has been done? Is it deduced from the assessment of the mass of IC1101 ?

    Comment by Fred — May 9, 2011 #

  37. Here’s a good comparison. Stars and living things.
    What characterizes an organism? respiration? - stars consume hydrogen to produce helium. Reproduction? The elements from stars often go towards making new ones,especially after supernovas and with nebulas.some of them form partnerships with others. stars also are born, age and die.

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