Notes to Poem: Sextillion Stars

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: On December 1, 2010, the #1 Trending Now Yahoo! news item was "Sextillion". I rarely click on this list of movie stars popular with web browsers. I thought this giant number is the name of some new music rock group for my number collection. When the link connected to "300 Sextillion Stars in Universe", it piqued my interest as 3 x 1023 is just half of Avogadro's Number, 6.022 x 1023. When I was at Foothill Krause Center, December 3 (3:14-5:10 pm), my friend Rudy showed me his "Photoshop Phobia Project". His recurring dreams of bulls and cows chasing him off a cliff stem from his 12-year old trauma of bulls chasing him up a tree when he trespassed a meadow. I told Rudy the same joke to my 6-year old niece Elisa, that our Milky Way was created by a Cow God. A day earlier I learned that Cow Goddesses Hathor (Egypt) and Aditi (India) were associated with the Milky Way. So I tell Rudy that "Cow Goddesses are trying to wake you up to Cosmic Consciousness, and when you realize that you'll shout Holy Cow!" My new interpretation of Rudy's dream was a revelation to me and inspired this poem in two hours. Half an hour was spent looking through photos of cows on streets in India to complement my poem. I read this poem that evening at Palo Alto's Waverley Writers, the first time I had read a poem on the day it was written. These Notes were compiled a week later.

Commentary on Poem "Sextillion Stars":

News Flash— The number of stars
in our universe has just tripled—
we now have 300 sextillion of them.

On December 1, 2010, I noticed that the #1 Trending Now Yahoo! news item was "Sextillion". As I'm interested in large numbers, clicking on this link led to the news article "Sextillion Stars in Universe" (, 12-1-2010), that astronomers from Yale and Harvard have found 300 sextillion stars in our universe, three times more than previous estimates. In "How Many Stars?" (By Kenneth Chang, New York Times, 12-1-2010), Dr. Pieter van Dokkum (Yale) and Dr. Charles Conroy (Harvard) found that elliptical galaxies had more stars than spiral galaxies, and since ellipticals account for a third of all galaxies, the new estimate is three times as many stars for the entire universe. "Starry, Starry, Starry Night" (Associated Press) Photo Source: "Supernova Blast Bonaza" (NASA/JPL/Hubble)

this number will soon double
so it's exactly Avogadro's Number 6.022 x 1023
named after an Italian physicist.

300 sextillion = 3 x 1023, when doubled is similar to Avogadro's Number, 6.022 x 1023 named after the Italian physicist Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856). In 1811, Avogadro published in a French journal Journal de Physique, de Chimie et d'Histoire naturelle that the relationship between the masses of the same volume of different gases (at the same temperature and pressure) corresponds to the relationship between their respective molecular weights. Hence, the relative molecular mass of a gas can be calculated from the mass of sample of known volume. In honor of Avogadro's contributions to molecular theory, the number of molecules in one mole was named Avogadro's number, N. It is approximately 6.0221415 x 1023. Avogadro's number is used to compute the results of chemical reactions. It allows chemists to determine the exact amounts of substances produced in a given reaction. Johann Josef Loschmidt (1821-1895) first calculated the value of Avogadro's number, often referred to as the Loschmidt number. Avogadro's number was defined by Jean Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942) as the number of molecules in one gram-molecule of oxygen. For this and other work, Perrin was awarded the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics.

I recall Professor Benjamin Widom's
Quantum Mechanics lecture at Cornell—
"Avogadro's Number is the largest
you'll ever encounter in your life!"—

Professor Benjamin Widom is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University. I took Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics (1965-1966) with him as a graduate student at Cornell. Despite these tough courses, Professor Widom's lectures were so illuminating that he made the class understand hard concepts easily. I agreed with many chemistry students that Professor Widom is the best science lecturer we ever had. Professor Widom was awarded the 1998 Boltzman Medal to physicists for original research in statistical mechanics. I've often thought about his remark of Avogadro's Number being the largest we'd ever experience in our life. And it's true for chemists and physicists who encounter it in numerous equations. The grains of sand on earth is estimated to be 1022. While googol is a gigantic number 1 x 10100 coined by 9 year old Milton Sirotta in 1938, nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner, it remains an abstract number, even though it was somewhat appropriated by the search engine Google.

Soon we'll have Avogadro's number
of stars in a drop of cosmic milk—
in a bowl drunk by a gigantic god.

There are 1.67 sextillion molecules of H2O in a drop of water (0.05 ml). Let's imagine the universe just a drop of milk containing 600 sextillion stars as nutrients for some gigantic cosmic god to drink, then a cup (250 ml) contains 250/0.05 = 5000 drops which equals 8350 sextillion molecules of water. Since milk is 1.032 more dense than water, a cup contains 8091 sextillion molecules of milk. Our Milky Way got its name from ancient Greek since Galaxias is derived from milk gala. This is also the origin of the word galaxy. In Greek myth, the Milky Way was caused by milk spilt by Hera (wife of Zeus) when suckling Heracles. Hera was called Bopis or "Cow-Eyed" and may have been the first sacred cow. (Photo Source: Zeus drinking)

No wonder we live in the Milky Way and
in jest I told my 6-year old niece years ago,
that our galaxy was made by some Cow God

The Milky Way is the spiral galaxy where our solar system lives. It is 100,000 light years in diameter and 1000 light years thick at the center of the galactic disk. There are 200-400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Our Sun is 26,400 light years from the galactical center. On a dark night, we can see a faint hazy whitish band of starlight spanning the sky. That band is the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way revolves once every 225 million years. The Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicating that the Solar System lies close to the galactic plane. My six-year old niece Elisa asked me how the Milky Way got its name. Not knowing the answer, I joked it was created by some Cow God, not realizing that some ancient myths thought likewise. (Photo Source: Pillar of Cloud)

in Egypt the Cow Goddess was Hathor
Hathor was an Ancient Egyptian goddess who personified the principles of love, beauty, music, motherhood and joy. Hathor is commonly depicted as a cow goddess with head horns in which is set a sun disk with Uraeus. Twin feathers are also sometimes shown in later periods as well as a menat necklace. Hathor may be the cow goddess who is depicted from an early date on the Narmer Palette and on a stone urn dating from the 1st dynasty that suggests a role as sky-goddess and a relationship to Horus who, as a sun god, is "housed" in her. Hathor, along with the goddess Nut, was associated with the Milky Way during the third millennium B.C. when, during the fall and spring equinoxes, it aligned over and touched the earth where the sun rose and fell. The four legs of the celestial cow represented Nut or Hathor could, in one account, be seen as the pillars on which the sky was supported with the stars on their bellies constituting the milky way on which the solar barque of Ra, representing the sun, sailed. The Milky Way was seen as a waterway in the heavens, sailed upon by both the sun deity and the moon, leading the ancient Egyptians to describe it as The Nile in the Sky. (Image: Hathor: Queen of Heaven)

and in India, Aditi, Mother of the gods.
Aditi means limitless in Sanskrit [from a without & diti bound], boundless, free, infinite and shoreless expanse. In the Vedas, Aditi is Devamatri (mother of celestial gods) as from and in her cosmic matrix, all the heavenly bodies were born. As the celestial virgin and mother of every existing form and being, the synthesis of all things, she is highest Akasha (aether). Aditi is also known as Vac (mystic speech) in the Rig Veda, and with the Prakriti in Vedanta. As the womb of space, she is a feminized form of Brahma. The line in the Rig Veda X.72.4: "Daksha sprang from Aditi and Aditi from Daksha" refers to "eternal cyclic rebirth of the same divine essence". In one of the most mystic aspects, Aditi is divine wisdom. Aditi is the goddess of space, consciousness, the past, future, and fertility. As a mothering presence, Aditi is associated with a cow, providing nourishment. As the cosmic cow, her milk is identified with the redemptive, invigorating drink Soma. (Image Source: Aditi, Cosmic Cow Goddess & Mother of celestial gods, Creativity of the all Creating)

Cow Symbolism
Cow: Associated with the earth and the moon. A great many lunar goddesses wear the horns of a cow on their head. When linked with the primigenial goddess Neith, the cow is a mother symbol ("Great Cow who gave birth to Ra"), representing the primal principle of humidity and endowed with certain androgynous characteristics. In Egypt it was linked with the idea of vital heat. Vac, the feminine aspect of Brahma, is known as the 'melodious Cow' and as the 'Cow of abundance', the first description stemming from the idea of the world's creation out of sound, while the second— comes from its function of nourishing the world with its milk, the fine dust of the Milky Way. Thus, we see the idea of heaven as a fecundating bull, with its sex inverted. In Hinduism, the bull and the cow represent the active and passive aspects of the generating forces of the universe. (J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, page 63). Cow: The Great Mother; all moon goddesses in their nourishing aspect; the productive power of the earth; plenty; procreation; maternal instinct. The horns are the crescent moon and, as representing both moon and earth goddesses, the cow is celestial and chthonic. Celtic: The chthonic cow is depicted as red with white ears. Chinese: The yin, earth principle, with the horse as yang and the heavens. Egyptian: Pre-eminently Hathor, Great Mother of Egypt. The double-headed cow represents Upper & Lower Egypt. The legs of the Celestial Cow, Nut, Lady of Heaven, are the four quarters of the earth and she has the stars of the firmament on her underbody. Hathor, Isis, and Nut can all be depicted as cows, or with horns. Greek: A form of Hera and Io. Hindu: The sacred animal. Fertility; plenty; the earth; Nandini, the wish-fulfilling cow, gives milk and an elixir; Aditi the all-embracing; the cow Prithivi. As the earth, the cow appears with the bull of heaven. The four legs of the Sacred Cow are the four castes. A barren black cow is sacred to Nirriti, goddess of ill-luck and disease. Scandinavian: The primordial cow, the Nourisher, sprang from the ice; she licked the ice to produce the first man. (J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, 1978, pp. 43-44). Cow: The cow (go gau, dhemu, usrah) is a sacred animal in India, symbol of food and generosity. likened to Aditi, Great Mother to the earth, and even to the universe. A cow and bull together make up the male and female procreative and nutritive symbols of divinity. • In the Vedas, cows are associated with dawn and the 'imperishable' sun; they are mothers who possess the triple nature of the supreme world. They are hidden rays of Surya, the sun god, sun's flock, and they symbolize mental light, enlightening thoughts, emanating from the super-conscious and coming from the sun, light and truth. • In ancient Greece, a cow symbolized divinity, often shown licking herself to symbolize the increase of her divine strength through the exercise of her nutritive power over herself. • In ancient Egypt, in Memphis, the cow was a symbol of passive creative power, incarnated in Venus. • The cow fulfilled a cosmic role: the cow of heaven, Mehurt, gave birth to the sky, and incarnated the heavenly ocean (Methyer for the Greeks). The sky was upheld by the four feet of the great mother, Hathor, Egyptian goddess of the cosmos and cow-goddess, whose belly was the firmament. Every evening Horus the sun entered her mouth in the form of an eagle, and every morning was reborn. • In dreams, a cow is the incarnation of the maternal and vegetative side of life. For women, it counsels patience, kindness, humility and submission. (Nadia Julien, The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols, 1996, pp. 87-88). (Image Source: "Go the Cow", Himalayan Academy)

That's why the cows are sacred in India
Cow in Hinduism: In India the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. Verses of the Rig Veda refer to the cow as Devi (goddess), identified with Aditi (mother of the gods) herself. Cattle in Religion: In the Rig Veda III.33.1, cows are symbols of wealth, and compared to the river goddesses. The god Indra is often compared to a bull. Vyasa said "Cows are sacred. They are embodiments of merit. They are high and most efficacious cleansers of all." Krishna is depicted as a cowherd. He is often described as Bala Gopala, "the child who protects the cows." Gomatha (Mother Cow) is worshipped in India as she helped villagers kill a demon. Kamadenu is a divine bovine-goddess and mother of all cows. Here is a Hindu prayer to cows: "The cow is our mother for life, supplying us with milk. When we are babies, we drink our mother's milk. When we grow up, Cow becomes our mother for life, supplying us with milk. Out of her motherly love, she gives so much milk that it is not only enough for her calf, but also leaves plenty for us." Image: "Gomatha-Kamadhenu" (Sound: Hindu God)

still roaming the streets of Bangalore
while they're the Silicon Valley of Asia.

The Silicon Valley of India is a nickname of the city of Bangalore. It signifies Bangalore's status as a hub for information technology (IT) companies in India, comparable to the original Silicon Valley, in Santa Clara, California, a major hub for IT companies in the United States. Google Images showed 3,160,000 photos of cows on streets in India, 223,000 images for Mumbai, and 98,000 images for Bangalore. Despite the rise in technological industries in Bangalore and Mumbai, cows still roam the streets blocking traffic. The photo shown at left seems the cutest among dozens posted on the web. One tourist reports: "Holy cow has a whole new meaning: cows have the right-of-way on streets. They walked next to us when we drove, and they literally roam everywhere." Photo Source: "Cow on Streets in India" (Ishtars Gate)

My friend Rudy has recurring dreams of bulls and cows chasing him off a cliff and
even did a "Photoshop Phobia Project" that when he was 12, riding a bike across
a meadow, bulls charged and he climbed up a tree for half an hour until they left.

My friend Rudy asked me to interpret his recurring dreams of bulls and cows chasing him off a cliff. I told him that bulls and bears on Wall Street symbolize the stock market rising and falling respectively. As Rudy is always looking for the best investments, his dreams are warning him of an impending bear market where his stock portfolio may tumble. Now Rudy is taking Adobe Photoshop at Foothill College. His final project is to compose a montage of his phobia. So Rudy shows a scene where when he was 12 years old riding a bike with a basket of apples. He decides to take a shortcut going across a meadow. Then a bull charged at him. He jumped off his bike and climbed a tree, staying up for half an hour before the bull left. Finally Rudy tells me his childhood trauma that triggered all those nightmares of bulls and cows running him off a cliff. (Photo Source: Rudy's "Photoshop Phobia Project")

But now I give him a new interpretation—
"The cows are really gods telling you Wake up! Wake up!—
This universe is your Mind's making in waking, dream, and sleep."

"In the state of deep sleep, when ego disappears, the body also becomes unconscious. The state in which there is the half manifestation of the ego is called the dream state, and the full manifestation of the ego is the state of waking."
— Bharati Tirtha (c. 1328-1380), Drg-Drsya-Viveka, X
     Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore, India, 1964, p. 13.
The states of consciousness is cited in Mandukya Upanishad (circa 500 B.C.):
The waking state of outer consciousness enjoys the world of gross objects. The dream state of inner consciousness enjoys the realm of subtle objects. The deep sleep state of silent consciousness has no desires and enjoys bliss. The fourth state of pure consciousness is Atman symbolized by AUM. "A" the waking, "U" the dreaming, "M" the sleeping states, are but manifestations of the fourth state of supreme consciousness, the Silence behind the A-U-M, the real eternal Self.
(Juan Mascaró's translation of Mandukya Upanishad, The Upanishads, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1965, pp. 83-84)
This "fourth state" turiya or Pure Consciousness is the essence or substratum of the waking, dream, and deep sleep states. It is unchanging and timeless. Therefore it satisfies the condition of Reality defined by the rishis and sages. Beethoven was familiar with The Upanishads, so when he composed the opening of his Fifth Symphony with the distinctive four-note "short-short-short-long" motif: "dun-dun-dun-DUN!". I believe the last long and louder note represents the fourth state of consciousness— Beethoven is telling us to "WAKE UP!" to Enlightenment! So my message to Rudy is that the cows chasing him off cliffs in his recurring dreams are really Cow Gods telling him to wake up to Cosmic Consciousness. (Image: "Symbol of Om", Notes: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony)

When you realize that— gone
are all fears and you'll shout Holy Cow!

"Holy cow!" is an exclamation of surprise expressing wonder or astonishment. (Also Holy Moses!, Holy smoke!, Holy mackerel!) OED cites 1942 as the first usage of "Holy cow!" in L.V. Berrey & M. Van den Bark, American Thesaurus Slang 194/6. It was cited in 1951 by J. Cornish's Provincials 40: "Quit showing off. Holy cow!". "Holy cow" was the catchphrase of Phil Rizzuto, Yankees shortstop (1941-1956) and broadcaster (1957-1996). The phrase was so popular with "Scooter," as Rizzuto is often called, that when the Yankees honored him decades after he retired, they actually had a real cow with a halo prop on its head. Amusingly enough including Rizzuto, Scooter wound up tripping over the cow. Rizzuto was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1994 that was long overdue since his retirement 38 years earlier. Found in Google Images— Phil Rizzuto's 1952 Topps Baseball Card with 66 stars surrounding his name and autograph. It is fitting that this poem of "Sextillion Stars" ends with his image for he is truly a star. (Photo Source: Phil Rizzuto, 1952 Topps #11 Baseball Card, Baseball Cards Online)

                                                            — Peter Y. Chou
                                                                Mountain View, 12-9-2010

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