Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Think I Want to Write a Book

I've had some ideas for books before, mostly fiction.  Like many of my intended projects, they haven't gone far.  But the atheist movement has captured my interest for quite awhile now, and I think I want to try again.  A tentative title that I think captures the subject well: Digital Disbelief: Why the Internet is Where Religions Come to Die.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Kindness Drug

I'm going to propose a hypothetical situation here. Let's say that biochemists develop a drug which is intended to influence brain chemistry in such a way that people who take it become kinder, more loving, more generous. Now, of course, this drug wouldn't take away all the other good reasons to be kind and loving and generous. It would just provide another impetus for that behavior.
In initial trials, the drug works wonders. People who take it become paragons of virtue, clearly expressing the kinds of behavior that we wish were common throughout the world. First hypothetical question: Would it be a good idea toenforce the use of this drug? To make it mandatory, perhaps put it in the water supply, ensure that children are given this drug from an early age? Again, recall that we haven't eliminated any other reasons for kindness and generosity.
Now, let's go forward a bit. The drug comes into wide use, and it turns out there's an unexpected side effect. Many people, even most people, get the intended effect. But in some people, this drug turns them into bigots, hate-filled demagogues, rapists, murderers, even mass murderers. And there's no particular way to determine who, when given this drug, will end up wanting to chop peoples' hands off or burn them alive. Of course, not everyone ends up with this effect, but a significant fraction do. Second question: Would you argue that this drug is a force for good in the world, that it is reasonable to continue promoting the use of this drug?

Credit to +JT Eberhard for inspiring this idea.  And yes, I realized after I wrote it up that this sounds similar to a plot element of Serenity.  It wouldn't surprise me if Joss Whedon had a similar metaphor in mind.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mystery and Awe

If you give me the right man in any field, I can talk to him, I know what the condition is. That he did whatever he did as far as he can go. That he studied every aspect of it as far as he could stretch himself. He is not a dilettante in any way. And so he talked deep, as far as he can go, and therefore he is up against mysteries all the way around the edge, and awe. And we can talk about mystery and awe. That is what we have in common.
That's Richard Feynman, in a Yorkshire Television interview in 1973. It has struck me recently that this is the kind of thing that religion is supposed to have over science, and I just don't believe that for a second. From that same interview:
It is very much more exciting to discover that we are on a ball, half of us sticking upside down and spinning around in space. It is a mysterious force which holds us on. It's going around a great big glob of gas that is fed by a fire that is completely different from any fire that we can make (but now we can make that fire – nuclear fire.)
That is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales that other people used to make up about the universe – that we were living on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. So what's the pleasure in physics for me is that it is revealed that the truth is so remarkable, so amazing, and I have this disease – like many other people who have studied far enough to begin to understand a little of how things work. They are fascinated by it, and this fascination drives them on to such an extent that they have been able to convince governments and so on to keep supporting them in this investigation.
Of course, another of my heroes is Carl Sagan.  The idea of approaching mystery and awe, the balance between the two key elements of skepticism and wonder, were a constant theme in his work.  I of course recommend Cosmos and The Demon-Haunted World, but he reached perhaps his greatest crescendo on this topic in Pale Blue Dot.  
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. 
Indeed, this seems to be a common theme among scientists.  Here's Lawrence Krauss:
The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today. 
I could go on for days, finding expression after expression of just how amazing and wonderful the universe is, how much finding things out brings us right up against the mystery and awe that mark the best in "spirituality".  The Symphony of Science series presents this wonderfully, and the latest video speaks to just the most astounding thing about our origins that I think it's possible to say: We Are Stardust.
I think we can all agree on the importance of mystery and awe. No matter what your religious beliefs, odds are that such things are an inextricable part of them. But why, if it's eminently possible to achieve such things through contemplation of the universe through the methods of science, should we cling to religion so fiercely? I simply don't understand it. The discoveries made in the search for our actual circumstances are readily available to the general public, and I also don't buy the idea that some people "just can't live without religion", that they're somehow not able to "get" science; I have more respect for their intellect than that. Isn't it time we just let go?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What Is Spirituality?

There seems to be a frustrating but unavoidable opinion in our culture that "spirituality" is associated with being good, and "materialism" (in the colloquial sense of "he who dies with the most toys wins") is associated with being wicked. I've encountered it several times recently in discussions here, usually in the context of saying that atheists just don't "get" religion, that we're "missing the point". Presumably, religion is supposed to deal with the "spiritual dimension" of human experience, and never mind all the times it ignores the supposed boundaries of its magisterium. Because atheists don't believe in god or the supernatural, they can't be spiritual, and thus can't really be good. The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey described it thus, when noting that all stories of psychic phenomena have self-righteous, "holy" elements: originates with what is, arguably, one of the most remarkable confidence tricks our culture has played on us. This has been to persuade people that there is a deep connection between believing in the possibility of psychic forces and being a gracious, honest, upright, trustworthy member of society...
The majority of our culture seems to be convinced, across religious views, that humans have a "deep need" for "spirituality." But what does spirituality mean? I guess it's supposed to be obvious, because very rarely does anyone even try to explain it. It's not at all obvious. The typical answer, which I've also received here many times in similar contexts, is "If you have to ask, you'll never know; you have to live it." Which is singularly worthless as an explanation; it is indeed a refusal to explain. Dan Dennett parodies, rather accurately as all good parodies do, the typical explanation. To see how hard it is to explain what spirituality is, he challenges his readers to try to improve on this:
"Spirituality is, you know, like, it's like paying attention to your soul or having deep thoughts that really move you, and not just thinking about who's got nicer clothes and whether to buy a new car and what's for dinner and stuff like that. Spirituality is really caring and not being just, you know, materialistic."
And, of course, it's easy to make the jump from "only thinking about stuff" materialistic to "all phenomena are explicable without an appeal to immaterial things" materialistic. At which point, it's effortless to slide into thinking that atheists don't "really care", are shallow and selfish and overconfident know-it-alls, when they're "missing out" on this vague, poorly defined, and yet oh so important dimension of human experience, the spirit.
Dennett goes on to try to give better words to what spirituality is:
What those people have realized is one of the best secrets to life: let your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and all your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person.
And then he gives the all-important point (emphasis mine):
That, I propose is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.
There is absolutely nothing stopping an atheist from understanding that feeling, having that mindset of awe and wonder and proper scale and connectedness and humility. Indeed, most of the atheists I've talked to understand this quite deeply; how many upvotes are given to We Are Star Dust or The Story of Everything or This Remarkable Thing or A Universe Not Made For Us? If this is what spirituality means, then almost every atheist I know is deeply spiritual. If it's not what spirituality means, then what does it mean? I'd really love for someone to explain to me, clearly and understandably, what I'm "missing out on" by not being religious.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Contemporary Evangelical and Liberal Christianity is Too Easy

Before I begin, I'd like to note that there's a significant difference between evangelical Christianity andfundamentalist Christianity. There are evangelical fundamentalist Christians, but the two are far from synonymous. Fundamentalism holds to Biblical inerrancy, and as I'll describe, that's hard. Evangelicalism is based in personal conversion, sharing the gospel, and Biblical authority. It does not require, as fundamentalism does, literal interpretations of scripture.
So, evangelical and liberal Christianity are too easy to persist. Religious belief, if it is to be transmitted consistently, relies on several factors. The one that I'm focusing on here is difficulty. The religions that have persisted for long periods of time are very hard to follow. On one hand, they require conspicuous and, critically, impractical behaviors as professions of faith. For example, the following from a Jewish rabbi:
That most of the Kashrut laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 percent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peas at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.
Similarly, Islam requires that its followers stop what they are doing five times a day to pray, never mind how inconvenient or poorly timed or indeed dangerous doing so might be. Catholic ritual also fits the bill; it is very elaborate, very strict in form and slow to change over the years, and very definitely required. In Cardinal Ratzinger's Declaration "Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church", it is stated over and over the things that Catholics must "firmly believe" (and those italics are in the original), but it also switches several times to what "the Catholic faithful are required to profess". And these are merely examples we can find within the Abrahamic religions.
These actions are important precisely because they are hard to do. They allow the believer to feel that they areproving their faith, simply because they are choosing to follow commands that they, frankly, don't understand. There's no reason for it, there's no practical purpose, it is done because it is commanded, and thus demonstrates one's loyalty to the religion from which the commands issue.
On the other hand, they require people to believe in things that are incomprehensible. Again, this is hard to do, because it is a natural human tendency to try to figure things out. Dan Dennett calls this "credal athleticism", the boast that my faith is so strong that I can embrace a bigger paradox than you can. This serves much the same purpose as the conspicuous actions noted above; believing something that is patently ridiculous is hard to do, and getting to the point that you can do it feels like you're accomplishing something difficult in the service of your god. Indeed, it may even become one of those conspicuous actions when those beliefs are professed. When a fundamentalist Christian loudly and unwaveringly proclaims that no matter how much evidence you show him, he will continue to believe that the Bible is literally true, you may throw up your hands in exasperation, but he feels that has accomplished a very difficult and conspicuous task, that of blatantly professing paradoxical ideas, and that's a good feeling for him.
Incomprehensible doctrines have another benefit, as well; they must be passed down verbatim. Paraphrasing won't work, because to paraphrase you have to understand what is being said. For the incomprehensible, the only thing to do is directly quote the doctrine. This expresses itself in devotion to hearing, reading, and memorizing scripture, and in exposing ones self to theological tracts and doctrinal statements that are quite simply opaque and impenetrable ("I don't understand what the Pope meant, but here's what he said"). It even plays into the idea, common in many religions, that god is an ineffable, unknowable, profoundly apophatic entity. God is "the greatest conceivable being", "god is love", god is "the ground of all being", god is "ultimate reality"; trying to dig into what these statements actually mean is often a pointless exercise, and so they are just said because there's no deeper understanding of them to be had.
But liberal and evangelical Christianity is different. It places a focus on what the words of the Bible mean to you. There's an emphasis on personal revelation, personal conversion, personal experience of god. Services include PowerPoint presentations, contemporary music, a dress code of "whatever", and no mandatory attendance. Some churches refuse the word "sanctuary" because it's too religious. Churches spend time not on issuing doctrines, but providing daycare services for their members. We're all familiar with the signs: definitions of "god" that depart radically from classical theism, the "it's not a religion" language, consistently relating stories about personal experience of god, novel interpretations of scripture, cherry-picking, etc. The only thing that is demanded of such believers is that they spread the gospel, but they do so in whatever manner they see fit, often without quoting a single verse of scripture.
This is way too easy. Consistent transmission of religious beliefs depends very strongly on the formulas being passed down intact, or at least almost exactly so, and the limitations on mutation of ideas imposed by strict rules of behavior and incomprehensible doctrines are almost if not entirely lost in contemporary evangelical and liberal Christianity. I've argued before that in some cases, people who call themselves Christians, but who are part of these groups, are no longer following anything that can be reasonably defined as a religion. It has changed so quickly that only a few vestiges of the original forms are left, and the actual beliefs no longer resemble the model on which they were based. Thus, I think that such forms of Christianity cannot persist in the long term. Their only consistent basis is a reliance on the Bible as a source of wisdom, and for many it is rapidly becoming secondary to one's own personal experience of "what god wants". While I, as an atheist, most definitely disagree with the more rigidly structured religions in terms of whether or not they are true, I cannot deny that they have traits which give me more confidence in their "staying power".

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Aquinas and the Cosmological Argument

In debating religion, I've run across a claim that has been made recently that the cosmological argument is the strongest argument out there for the existence of god.  And not just any cosmological argument, the one put forward in Thomas Aquinas' First Way, part of his Quinquae viae.  This may come as a surprise to those of you who thought that the cosmological argument had long since been soundly refuted.  But, as I've been told, none of the refutations, not a single one, have ever dealt with the real argument that Aquinas made.  Apparently, the way it's been interpreted for the past eight centuries is wrong.  Ed Feser makes this claim, but I'm afraid I don't currently have access to his book on Aquinas.  I intend to get to it in time, because I'm told it's very important.  In the meantime, this blog has been presented to me as an example of how the argument is supposed to work.  I've thought about it a good bit, and have decided to devote a little time to refuting it.

To sum up, here's the quick and simple version of the argument:

  1. Some things are being actualized
  2. Whatever is being actualized is being actualized by something else
  3. An essentially ordered chain cannot be infinitely long
  4. Therefore, there is something of pure actuality

Let's go ahead and take a look at the argument in detail.  In the first two sections of the post, we simply get a history lesson, describing the problem of change presented by Parmenides, and the division of things that exist into actual and potential by Aristotle.  It's simple, clear, and to the point, and I have no quibbles with how it begins.  I may not agree with the way the Greeks set it out, but it does its job at framing the space in which the argument is being made.

Regarding point III, however, we come to my first objection.  The distinction is made between an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series.  An accidentally ordered series is one in which the causes of the events in the series need not currently exist; in an essentially ordered series, the causes must exist in the present with the effects.  But is this a meaningful distinction?  The fact that we live in a universe where there is time makes the distinction between an accidentally ordered series and an essentially ordered series questionable. Let's start by defining the present, something that we can do today in terms far more accurate than Aquinas could in the 13th century.  What we call "the present" can be divided into tinier and tinier slivers of seconds, down to (theoretically) Planck time. The Planck time is the time required for light, in a vacuum, to travel one Planck Length, which is really short: 1.616199(97)x 10−35 meters.  This makes the Planck time roughly 10−43 seconds.  And, critically, for events taking less than Planck time, no change can be detected; that's part of the definition of Planck time. For events taking more than Planck time, the information that the event has occurred can propagate no faster than the speed of light, and thus cannot actually cause any change until at least some time has passed. All causes, by our current understanding of the laws of physics, must be in the past10−43 seconds in the past may not seem like a lot, but it is the past. In "the present", i.e. any given instant in which the Planck time has not elapsed, nothing is changing. Change is always measured over time.  But the concept of an essentially ordered series depends on things changing in the present; if I push on an object, so the idea goes, the force that I am exerting on the object in the present is causing the change that moves the object.  In reality, that's not how the world works; the force I exerted an instant ago is carried across the distance between my hand and the object at no faster than the finite speed of light and affects the object, and the force I'm exerting at this instant hasn't gotten there yet, because even if I'm only the Planck length away, the information that I'm exerting force cannot have yet traveled the distance.  It appears that all series must be accidentally ordered series, and since this is admitted to not be proof of a god, the argument falls flat before we even finish the definitions.  That's a pretty good refutation, I think.  But I can do better than that.

Let's look at the three premises in the simplified argument above.

  • Premise 1: Some things are changing. This is fine, subject to the point I elucidated above.
  • Premise 2: Whatever is changing (whatever is a mix of potential & actual) is being changed by something else. This is the key point of contention, as it is in many modern refutations of the cosmological argument. It hinges, as many things do, on the fact that we've found out a lot since Aquinas' day.  This premise isn't necessarily true, but that doesn't mean it isn't true in practice; it could have turned out to be the case, even if not logically necessary. However, the observation of uncaused phenomena in modern science does mean that it isn't true. Radioactive decay is a great example, and the most familiar that I can name.  An unstable isotope of an element doesn't look unstable; it appears perfectly fine, acting just like any other atom, right up until the very instant that it decays.  There are no precursor events, no warning signs that decay is about to occur; on the level of individual atoms, whether the atom decays at any given moment is a matter of probability, and is one of the processes that appear to be truly stochastic.  We can say that, over a given period of time, about half of the atoms of a chunk of radioactive material will have decayed, but we can't say a thing about any given atom.  Nothing actually causes the decay to happen; there are necessary conditions, but no causal event.  Aquinas couldn't have known this in the 13th century, so he can't be blamed. But we should probably move on now that the universe has shown this premise to be false.  I could stop here, too, but let's keep going
  • Premise 3: This chain cannot be infinitely long, because it is an essentially ordered series. Again, the question of whether the concept of an essentially ordered series makes sense comes into play. But even if we grant it, the unstated assumption is that there must be only one terminus to all chains. This point is addressed further on, though, and I'll come back to it. But it also ignores the possibility of cycles. If we have an essentially ordered series, where A is causing B, and B is causing C, and so on, what stops Z from causing A? If we have, say, a wheel of atoms, and one is moving (from an external push in the past, outside our EOS for this wheel), then it pushes the one ahead of it, which pushes the one ahead of it, and so on, but the one behind the first is then pushing the first. The chain may not have an infinite number of members, but it isn't clear that this means it needs to terminate in a pure actuality.

So, we've got serious problems in two of the three premises, with the second being the most problematic.  The argument appears to be just as unsound as we'd expected.  But I can still do better than that.  The post then goes on to the attributes of "pure actuality". Even if we grant that we can get there from the argument, the attributes noted are either questionable or applicable to something that we would not call god. Of note is the property of unity.  As the post says, "The only way to tell the difference between two things is if one thing has an attribute that another lacks." But that doesn't mean there couldn't be an infinite number of indistinguishable ends to the chains. And it doesn't mean that a pure actuality would necessarily have all attributes; there could be things that it might not be possible for it to be, in which case it couldn't potentially be those things, and would remain pure actuality.  It also includes an odd Thomistic concept of "good"; goodness in the Thomist view is synonymous with existence.  This is a concept that really doesn't seem to make sense; the pen sitting on my desk is good, but if I need a pen and don't have it, I'm suffering from evil? This seems to be a matter of equivocation more than reason.

But I have one more point to make, one that I think is particularly devastating.  A common claim for the cosmological argument is that it provides a "first step", a way to get not to the full concept of god (although the traits noted here for pure actuality are pretty close), but to an acceptance that a god of some sort exists.  But let's look at some of these traits, and see whether they describe a god or...something else:

  • Incorporeal: we can imagine a lot of things that are not matter or energy.  Ideas, for example, or mathematical constructs, or the laws of physics...
  • Simple: Well, many things are simple, even more simple than matter and energy.  Like the equation that describes matter and energy (E = mc2) or the Feynman path integral describing the likelihood that a particle will follow a given path through space...
  • Unity: Basically, something that is the same everywhere, where you don't have multiples, but rather a single unified description...
  • Eternal, Immutable: The same not only everywhere, but everywhen, constant at all points in time from the beginning of the universe (or even before) onward...
  • Impassable: Cannot be made to change, beyond the ability of anything to alter, like some sort of fixed natural law...
  • Omnipotent: The source of all change in the universe, and the source of all change that could possibly occur, the ultimate explanation for everything that occurs...
I'll be honest with you, I don't see god in that.  "Conscious", "personal", those aren't implied.  What do I see coming from these traits that pure actuality must have?  A limited set of necessary properties of the universe (as Lawrence Krauss and some other physicists argue for) would be incorporeal, simple, eternal, unity, immutable, impassable, and (at least by the given definition of "the source of all change in the universe, and the source of any change that could ever logically occur") omnipotent. Thanks to the Pauli exclusion principle, noting that no two particles can ever be in exactly the quantum state simultaneously, and thus any change in, say, the energy state of an electron caused by rubbing your hands together might then affect every other electron in the universe (a really weird conclusion supported by some physicists like Brian Cox, but disputed by others), it could even be said that this basic set of principles is omniscient, probably in a more direct way than the roundabout "ground of all being, doesn't have knowledge but is knowledge" sense described. Since the definition of "good" being used is the weird Thomistic way of equating goodness with existence, then the Thomist would even have to conclude that the laws of physics, since they quite evidently exist, are indeed good. I wouldn't say so, but then, I think that's a wonky definition of good.

Congratulations, Thomists.  If you accept the cosmological argument, as presented in Aquinas' First Way, as a valid argument, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to conclude that the "first cause" is not god, but a limited, simple set of logically necessary laws of physics.  If you happen to be interested in what those logically necessary laws of physics might be, I recommend A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss or The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.  Both argue quite nicely that the universe did not need a god to get it started, or to keep it running currently, but rather that the laws of physics alone suffice.

Edit: Updated my brief diversion on the Pauli exclusion principle.  The science isn't quite as conclusive as I'd originally presented it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Isn't This Enough?

A couple of things have recently hit my radar that just make my jaw drop.  I've seen this picture several times in the past, and it underscores for me just a tiny piece of the scale of things:

You start to realize the incredible range in which things exist in our universe; when you then think that VY Canis Majoris is one star of the 400 billion or so stars in the Milky Way, and that the Milky Way is one of over 80 billion galaxies in the observable universe, you can't help but sit in awe of the immensity of the cosmos.  But I just recently ran across the second iteration of The Scale of the Universe.

You can, with a single slider, move along the orders of magnitude in our universe.  It begins on the 1-meter ring, a familiar scale for humans; we're approximately 1.7 meters tall, give or take.  A slight zoom to the right takes you to the size of a house, a slight zoom to the left to the size of a penny.  The limits of that zoom, the minuscule movement of the slider required to span what is, to us, such a wide range, is just the beginning of the experience.  Moving to the right, you slide past the LHC, the Grand Canyon, and out to the scale of the Galilean moons almost without noticing it.  To see that the Oort cloud, the grand extent of our solar system, is so large that not even the largest of stars is visible any longer is a testament to the power of gravity.  At the top end, the scale of the entire universe, one has a sense as of peering down from a great height, a strange mix of fear and joy.  And that is only half the journey.  Moving to the left, down the decimal points, the smallest object visible to the human eye is met only a tiny fraction of the way along, next to a human egg, a human hair, and the thickness of a sheet of paper.  It is amazing to me, as a computer scientist, that the transistor gates that make up our computers are too small to be resolved with an optical microscope, and only barely larger than a molecule of DNA.  And then, perhaps most telling of all, we pass hydrogen atoms, then the lonely gamma rays, then nuclei, a few scattered subatomic particles, quarks and neutrinos floating almost entirely alone, and then nothing for order of magnitude after order of magnitude.  The smallest things we know are so much smaller than their nearest neighbors that good portions of the slider are simply empty. It is astonishing to me, and the presentation is awe-inspiring to say the least.

There is, however, more than one vastness in our cosmos.  The immensity of time is brought home by an ambitious and beautiful project called ChronoZoom.  For a great write-up on the project, check out Ars Technica's coverage.  Cataloging nearly 14 billion years of history, you can zoom again to numerous scales.  Peppered along the way are "bubbles" that contain additional information about important features of the epoch at which you're looking.  Videos are embedded in the bubbles, and can tell you about the origins of the universe, of stars, of life, of agriculture, and so on.  It is rather graphically impressive to see that the history of the universe was 2/3 over before the Earth even formed.  We, of course, occupy a tiny sliver at the far right, a fraction of a fraction of the UI of this amazing site.  The range of topics covered goes from the vast reaches of the distant past to the advances made by Microsoft (which is a tiny sliver of the tiny sliver that is recorded human history, which is a tiny sliver of the lifetime of our species...).  Intended to be a growing, open-source way for people to experience "Big History", the site is only in its earliest stages.  Already, it is an impressive feat of technology (using HTML5 as I've not seen it used before), a triumph of mathematics (to get the smooth flow along the epochs working right), and a truly visionary look at history and time.  "We envision a world where scientists, researchers, students, and teachers collaborate through ChronoZoom to share information via data, tours, and insight," the ChronoZoom team writes. "Imagine a world where the leading academics publish their findings to the world in a manner that can easily be accessed and compared to other data. We will be focusing on community development of features, capabilities, and content."  I wish them well in their efforts, because they've already accomplished something amazing.