Friday, December 3, 2010

Science: Scale

To quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:
Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.
 The universe, or space if you like, is not only big but it also contains things that are very very small. The scale of our universe, and more importantly the differences in scale from the smallest things to the largest things, is vast and mind numbing.

Therefore it's best described with simple pictures.

In 1957 Kees Boeke wrote Cosmic View a small book that explores the scale of the universe in 40 drawings. There is also another online copy here. After the introduction and some preliminary text the book starts with a picture of a young girl with a cat on her lap. The next drawing is the same scene zoomed out 10 times. The girls is still at the centre of the picture but appears much smaller. It turns out she's sitting next to a couple of cars and a blue whale. Then the drawings keep zooming out 10 times to each show an area 100 times as large as the picture before.

It isn't man zooms before large parts of the solar system are in view. Each picture covers 100 times as much area as the one before. It's an amazing way of wrapping you head around the scale of the universe. After starting with a girl with a cat on her lap it takes 27 zooms to get to the size of the universe itself. 27 zooms of 10 times each. That's a huge number and a huge scale all in 27 pictures.

Kees Boeke isn't done yet. It's time to reverse the process. Again starting with the girl he now zooms in 10 times in each drawing. First zooming in on her hand and a barely visible mosquito. Zooming in takes 13 pictures. All told, based on zooms of 10 times, the universe's scale can be represented by 40 pictures. The difference from the largest to the smallest is mind bogglingly huge. It's hard to take in an appreciate in simple pictures.

Luckily we don't have to depend on simple pictures. We can depend on moving pictures to help us take in the scale of the universe.

Eleven years after Cosmic View was published two films recreated the same journey. Starting at a human scale, zooming out to the vast size of the universe, and then zooming in to the smallest scale we know off.

The more famous is called Powers of Ten. Made in 1968 (and rereleased in 1977 which is usually the date given for the film) it has a narrator give a running commentary on what we are seeing and what is happening.

I myself am more partial to the second film based on Cosmic View. Cosmic Zoom, a National Film Board of Canada production, drops the narrator and leaves the viewer to just watch the zoom and take it all in without interruption. Instead of starting in Chicago this zooms starts in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.

Whether you prefer Powers of Ten or Cosmic Zoom they both help give additional context (and dare I say it - scope) to Kees Boeke's original idea.

The story doesn't stop back then in 1968 when those two movies were made. There have been more recent views of the scale of the universe. An interactive example is The Scale of the Universe which allows you to scroll in and out at will.

Taking in the 40 or more powers of 10 that define the known scale of the universe is a humbling experience which helps, literally, to put things into perspective.

1 comment:

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