by David M. Schwartz
the amazing, engaging, math exponent
A light year is not a year that has gone on a diet. It is not a year that’s been trimmed to 300 days. It’s not a year spent under high-wattage lamps. A light year isn’t any kind of year.
A light year is a distance. It is a vast distance; the distance light travels in a year. To appreciate a light year, you have to understand how fast light travels.
The speed of light is truly mind-boggling: 186,000 miles per . . . second. That’s “per second,” not “per hour.” In one tick-tock second, light travels a distance of 186,000 miles. If it could go in circles, it could travel around the earth more than seven times in just one second! But light travels in straight lines, not in circles. Imagine something traveling that fast in a straight line—not for a second, not for a minute, not for an hour, not for a day, but for an entire year. The distance it goes in that year is called a light year.
A light year is a convenient unit of measure when distances are enormous. You could talk about the same distances in miles. It's about 5,878,499,810,000 (5 trillion, 878 billion, 499 million, 810 thousand ) of them. But these measurements are so large that they are unwieldy. It's much easier to just name that enormous distance with two simple words: a "light year."
The star closest to our solar system is Proxima Centauri. Some of the light that leaves Proxima Centauri goes to Earth, cruising along at 186,000 miles per second. At that speed, light takes about 4.2 years to get to Earth from Proxima Centauri So how far away is Proxima Centauri? It is 4.2 light years away.
To give you an idea of how far that is, imagine going to Proxima Centauri in a spaceship traveling at the speed of the space shuttle — about ten miles per second. (That’s much faster than airplanes can fly.) You would get there in about 70,000 years.
Our Sun is much closer than Proxima Centauri. It is 93 million miles away. There is another way to refer to the distance from the earth to the Sun. Light leaving the Sun takes about eight minutes to get to Earth, so we say the Sun is eight “light minutes” away. If you traveled at the speed of light, you could get there in eight minutes. Have a nice trip!
David Schwartz has been fascinated by big numbers and big distances ever since he was a little boy riding his bicycle, wondering “How long would it take for me to ride to Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away?” He wrote about light years in his math alphabet book G Is for Googol.
David is a member of iNK’s Authors on Call. He can visit in your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Learn more here.