Brain Pickings

How We Measure the Universe, Animated

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How to determine the distance of stars using standard candles.

Somewhere between Fibonacci’s invention of arithmetic, which changed the world of numbers as we know it, and scientists’ ambitious visualizations of the scale of the universe lies a daunting fundamental question: How do we actually use these numbers to measure the universe? That’s precisely what the Royal Observatory Greenwich answers in this wonderful short animation, a teaser for a new exhibition titled Measuring the Universe: from the transit of Venus to the edge of the cosmos.

In a nod to this morning’s affirmation of the additive nature of scientific discovery, narrator Dr. Olivia Johnson observes:

What’s most incredible to me is how all these measurements build on each other. It’s only by knowing the scale of our Solar System — the distance between the Earth and Sun — that we’re able to measure the distances to nearby stars using parallax.

The charming animation was done by Robert Milne, Ross Phillips, and Kwok Fung Lam.

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