Having fun with the mind-blowing scale of the universe

Want to feel microscopic, absolutely mind-bogglingly small? Or maybe you’d like to be bigger than gigantic, a universe in yourself? The Scale of the Universe 2 by Cary Huang is one of the coolest websites out there, fun for both kids and grownups. It’s been around for a while, but having only recently learned of it myself, I thought maybe you haven’t experienced it either.

scale of the universe

Just a screenshot – click the link above to go there.

This screenshot gives you only a rough idea of the site. The beauty of it is that you can zoom in and out. Way, way in and way, way out, from the smallest theorized object (strings from string theory) to the circumference of the known universe. You start at human size and can zoom larger or smaller, comparing the sizes of objects along the way.

We exist and observe our world from a narrow sliver of the vast continuum of scale. Things that are only marginally bigger than we are seem huge to us (look at the Amphilicoelias fragilimus, a 60-meter, 100-ton dinosaur, compared to a human), and things only a slightly smaller are impossible for us to see without a microscope.

Most of what’s in the universe is either larger or smaller than we are by many, many orders of magnitude. That’s one of those things that we all know and take for granted, but don’t really comprehend. This site will help you comprehend it—or at least appreciate how incomprehensible it is.

Here’s one of my favorite examples. Zoom out to the Sun, and compare it to the Earth. Pretty big, right? Now keep zooming out. At first I wasn’t surprised—I had long known that our sun isn’t especially large as far as stars go. Still, it was fun to see how tiny it appeared next to others.

And then the Sun vanished entirely… and the stars kept getting bigger, until even the giants that dwarfed the Sun shrank to specks. The stars just kept coming, bigger and bigger. At last the orange bulk of VY Canis Majoris drifted into the view window. This star has a radius of about 1,975,000,000 kilometers (1,227,000,000 miles).

And just how big is that compared to the Sun? Here’s a different view, from From “VY Canis Majoris” at Wikipedia:

The Sun compared to VY Canis Majoris, via Wikimedia Commons

A more physical way to experience scale is described in an article by Guy Ottewell, “The Thousand-Yard Model, or, The Earth as a Peppercorn,” at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s website. With teachers and schoolchildren in mind, he explains how to walk through a scale-model solar system that you build along the way as you take a thousand-yard walk. (And you must take the walk. Ottwell writes, “Reading the following description is no substitute: you must go out and take the steps and look at the distances, if the awe is to set in.” He’s right. Take the walk. I chose the top of a dam because it was long enough and flat enough.)

You start with an eight-inch ball (such as a bowling ball) to represent the sun. Ten paces away, a pinhead represents Mercury (a pace is about a yard, representing 3.6 million miles). Then take 9 paces to Venus (a peppercorn), 7 more to Earth (peppercorn), 14 to Mars (pinhead), 95 to Jupiter (a chestnut or pecan), and so on until you reach Pluto a thousand yards from the Sun (Ottewell was writing in the 1980s, long before Pluto’s demotion to “dwarf planet”).

OK, now imagine VY Canis Majoris in place of the Sun. You’re going to need a bigger ball. Centered on the bowling ball Sun, this ball’s outer surface will be 170 yards away—out past Jupiter. And of course the other side of the ball will be 170 yards from the Sun in the opposite direction.

Enjoy the walk. “But be warned,” Ottewell writes, “that if you do it once you may be asked to do it again. Children are fascinated by it enough to recount it to other children; they write ‘stories’ which get printed in the school paper; teachers from other schools call you up and ask you to demonstrate it.”

I can’t help but compare this to the reaction of certain grownups when Galileo demonstrated that the earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. Sometimes kids are wiser than adults, because they haven’t yet learned to interpret the wonder of the world and the thrill of discovery as a threat. Being small and ignorant has a way of establishing a baseline of humble curiosity that, unfortunately, is easy to outgrow, even today.

Funny thing, that thrill of discovery. I was all set to write about this when I learned that The Scale of the Universe has become a little out of date. It’s hard to keep up with astronomy these days. Since the website was completed, VY Canis Majoris has lost its title as largest known star to NML Cygni.

Oh well. Once you scale up to the nebulas, galaxies, galaxy clusters, superclusters, supercluster complexes and the Sloan Great Wall, the stars seem pretty dinky anyway.

(Another cool way to experience scale, via Number Sleuth, is here.)

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