Five Visualizations to Grasp the Scale of the Universe
What coffee beans, dinosaurs and lakeside picnics have to do with Isaac Asimov and formalized figments.
By Maria Popova
Since yesterday was 10.10.10, we’ve decided to celebrate this cosmic alignment of numerical symmetry by illuminating the measurements of magnitude. Today, we are taking five different looks at one of the most difficult concepts for the human brain to quantify and understand: The size and scale of the universe.
1. POWERS OF TEN
What better way to celebrate 10.10.10 than with Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic Powers of Ten film, an adventure in magnitudes circa 1977?
The film opens with a lakeside picnic in Chicago and branches outward into the universe, jumping to a vantage point ten times further out every ten seconds until our galaxy becomes a mere speck of light among many, then speed-zooms back to Earth, magnifying the view tenfold every ten seconds. The journey ends inside the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule of a white blood cell.
2. PRIMAXSTUDIO’S UNIVERSE
From Primax Studio comes this interactive infographic illustrating the scale of the universe, inviting you to zoom from the quantum foam of Einstein’s space-time theory to the outer limits of the cosmos an estimated 900 yotameters away.
Isaac Asimov aptly captured our muddled relationship with size and scale he said that “a single particle of sand is a large 32km-by-32km room.”
Universcale is a fascinating interactive infographic by Nikon, exploring the measurement units of the universe, femtometers to light-years. From historical background on when and why the different units of scale were created — because, let’s face it, none of this is absolute and “objective” but, rather, a set of mutually agreed upon conventions that humanity has crafted — to recent scientific developments to near-philosophical insights, Universcale is a treasure trove of knowledge.
The site was created five years ago — which feels like a previous era in the scale of life of the digital universe — and though it’s still a treat, we think it lends itself brilliantly to an iPad app and we’d love to see it as one.
4. HEAT SCALE OF THE UNIVERSE
Take a visual tour of what’s hot or not in the universe, from the strictly theoretical concept that is absolute zero to the 141,679,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000ºK of Planck, the temperature immediately after the Big Bang.
5. XKCD GRAVITY WELLS
The wonderful xkcd gets educational with this map of the universe’s gravity wells — from Titan’s feathery pseudo-gravity to Jupiter’s powerful suck — scaled to Earth’s surface gravity so that you can visualize the energy it would take to escape from each planet’s gravity. The deeper the well, the stronger the pull.
Though not related to the universe in the cosmic sense, this fascinating interactive exploration of cell size and scale from the University of Utah does glean an understanding of our living world that is very much a part of the universe.
As the best of information visualization does, it uses what’s familiar (a coffee bean, 12-point Times New Roman font) to depict what’s hard to grasp (a carbon atom) and, in the process, illuminates the magnitude of difference between these sizes.
Published October 11, 2010