Science has shown us the largest and
smallest of structures, situating us in size. We humans
exist at a scale roughly halfway (at least on a logarithmic scale)
between the largest and smallest structures in the universe. A
human is, to an astronomer, a meter in length. The universe
is, apparently, about 10 to the 27th times larger. And the
smallest length that seems to have any meaning to our present
physics (though nobody seems to know what that meaning is...)
something called the Planck length, is about 10 to the 35th times
smaller. How well can we imagine that which we can know by
measurement and calculation but not really see, which we can
conceive but not perceive? We can precisely define a light
year or an angstrom but, other than knowing they are ridiculously
large or small, can we really have a feel for things so far outside
our direct experience?
And what about time? Maybe you can fathom 1000 years, a
mere 10 or 20 human lifetimes, but can you really picture the
passage of a million years, 10 billion? Analogies help, of
course. Carl Sagan's cosmic calendar compressed cosmic evolution to
show the dates of the major steps in cosmic evolution spread
throughout one year, with seemingly significant steps in human
history only appearing in the final seconds. Many people have
creatively applied media and visualization technology to help us
achieve a visceral sense of the spatial and temporal scales of the
A classic short film about the scales of everything, which still
stands up after more than 30 years, is "Powers of 10" by
the husband and wife team of Ray and Charles Eames (1977).
The film borrowed the concept from the 1957 book Cosmic
View by Kees Boeke, and
the narration is by the late great Philip Morrison (a
physicist who was a huge influence on me when I was
young and whom I was privileged to meet on several
occasions). It starts with a couple enjoying a picnic by the
lakeside in Chicago and zooms out to the edge of the universe,
highlighting every power of ten change in scale. Then it
reverses, zooming back to the Earth and continuing deep inside the
cells of the mans hand. The film was made in 1977 and, among
many achievements, won first prize at a psychedelic film festival.
The science stands up very well over the intervening decades.
Some of the details of how we model and understand the
structures inside of atoms of the mans hand and the very large
scale distribution of galaxy clusters is slightly different in the
way we would tell the story now. But what strikes me is that
most of the content seems current and the perspective still jars
One of the best Simpsons intros I've ever seen
is also a riff on Powers of Ten.
A more recent effort comes in the form of a really cool flash
animation called "The Scale of the
Universe" made by Cary and Michael Huang. This takes
advantage of the interactive nature of new web tools and lets you
scroll between scales, showing representative structures and
seamlessly zooming in and out, spanning the range of physical
scales to the limits of what even makes sense to our science.
Here is yet another
scale-visualizing interactive, this one focusing on the sizes of
biological objects, from a coffee bean on down to a carbon
And here is
another cool interactive tool, based on the original Powers of
On a cosmic time scale, humans have been here for just a moment.
Now science and technology are rapidly changing the ways we
interact with the world and conceive of ourselves within it.
In some ways we must be better at conceiving of large distances
than our ancestors. Now we see the world from the sky, travel
thousands of miles in a day, zoom around "in" Google Earth, and see
pictures of our planet from space. On the other hand, riding
horseback across a continent might have given you more of a
visceral feel for the actual distances covered. Plausiblly
we've become somewhat more adept at conceiving of global scales,
even while city lights and indoor comforts have distanced us from
the depths of the night sky.
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