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.

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