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How Many Stars Are There?

A view of the bright star cluster NGC 3532 from La Silla Observatory in Chile.
G. Beccari
A view of the bright star cluster NGC 3532 from La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The night sky carries the weight of many meanings for humanity. It's the home of the gods (or God). It's the essence of distance. It's the embodiment of infinities.

We feel the great loneness of night under the dark sky, just as we feel the power of its great open wonder. More than any other experience, the night sky is the locus of our deepest (and often most unanswerable) questions.

But some questions about the night sky have straightforward answers, even if what those queries return remains pretty mind-blowing. "How many stars are up there?" spills out easily for anyone standing under the night sky. "Are there more stars than grains of sand on a beach? Are there more stars than people who have ever lived?"

Remarkably, fewer than 10,000 stars can be seen in the darkest of places on a dark night. That's the number of pennies in $100. Doesn't seem very cosmic does it? Well, don't let that factoid discourage you. If you take 4 minutes to watch the video below, you'll see how the number of stars appearing overhead is merely Step 1 on the road to counting up all stars in the universe.

Oh, and about stars vs. grains of sand on a beach? You'll just have to watch for yourself.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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