Quarks to quasars: the scale of the universe

This is very cool. Click on the image (or on this link) to activate Cary and Michael Huang’s interactive program, which lets you zoom in and out to see the relative sizes of everything in the cosmos — from neutrinos and preons (and smaller) to the Local Galactic Supercluster and the size of the observable universe itself. And for kicks, check out the three alternate versions provided: “Wrong,” “Swirly,” and “Portuguese.”

Update 2/12/2012: See a new version here.

Demonstrations of the scale of the universe always fascinate me. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite zoom-out videos here, but it’s also possible to grasp the relative sizes and distances of things without the aid of fancy camera moves and CGI effects.

There is, of course, the classic elementary school science activity of designating a basketball (or other similarly sized sphere) as the sun, and assigning marbles, peas, and peppercorns to represent the planets. When our daughter was in first grade, her science teacher did one better: she situated a small yellow ball in the middle of the room, and listed the number of paces it would take to get from this “sun” to Mercury, Venus and the rest. Picking up our daughter from her science classroom at the end of the day, we kept count of our steps as we left the school, mentally marking the spot where each planet would be: Mercury was just outside the school lobby, Earth was kitty-corner from the library, Jupiter was hanging out just past the Italian bakery. By the time we’d counted out the steps needed to get to Neptune, we were practically home.

Clearly this isn’t the most precise way to measure the relative distances of the planets, but it gets the idea across: the sun and its orbiting satellites aren’t a compact group, to be neatly contained in a hanging mobile or an astronomy poster. The Solar System is a BIG PLACE. Though of course, there are places that are much, much bigger.

At the Rose Center for Earth and Space, part of the American Museum of Natural History, there’s an amazing permanent exhibit which consists of a 400-foot-long walkway surrounding the massive Hayden Sphere: a 2,000-ton aluminum-clad globe, 87 feet across and 273 feet around. Inside, the Sphere houses both the Hayden Planetarium and a black-box theater wherein a video exhibit on the Big Bang runs on a constant loop. Outside, the Sphere is the focal point for “Scales of the Universe,” which cleverly takes you from the macro to the micro without any moving parts or flashy graphics. Instead, as you move around the walkway, you pass rail-mounted scale models of everything from galaxies and red supergiants to blood cells and atomic nuclei — each model accurately sized in relation to the Hayden Sphere, which, we are asked to imagine, represents various larger objects in comparison to the model at hand. Thus:

* If the Sphere is the size of a raindrop, then a rail-mounted model is the relative size of a red blood cell;

* If the Sphere is the size of a red blood cell, then a model is the relative size of a rhinovirus;

* If the Sphere is the size of a rhinovirus, then a model is the relative size of a hydrogen atom.

One can always just rush down the walkway without paying attention to the signage, give the models only a cursory glance, and be content with gaping at the globes of Jupiter and Saturn suspended high above. Plenty of people do, and that’s fine; you take whatever dose of awe and wonder works for you. But for those willing to make a little extra mental effort, the payoff can be profound: by merely shifting what the Sphere stands for, you get a breathtaking vision of the universe at all its levels. That’s quite a mind-trip for those willing to take it.

Of course, this is all just filling in the details. Sesame Street clued us in on the big picture, long ago:

(Images via Teaching with TED and Wikimedia Commons)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Quarks to quasars: the scale of the universe

  1. Lou

    Have you read The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth by Douglas Harding?

    • No — and from what I could briefly find out about it on Google, it doesn’t seem like something that I, an atheist, would be interested in. But if you’d like to talk about it, please feel free. 🙂

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