Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Total Perspective Vortex
powered by ODEO
Have you ever looked up at a mountain and felt so small by comparison?
We tend to think of the world as having quite a knobbly surface – more so in Scotland, less so in Holland. And yet, if you were to make an exact scale replica of the Earth that was a 1 metre diameter ball, then the difference between the top of Everest to the depths of the Marianas Trench would be no more than about 1.5mm. It would seem very smooth indeed - certainly nothing to spike your thumb on.
Before I move on, I want you to take a moment to look at this one metre ball in your hands – the planet you live on - where people are so small that you would need a powerful microscope to see them worrying about whether they should have rice or pasta with their dinner tonight, and getting beaten up because they were wearing the wrong coloured football shirt. This is your world, the only one you’ve got. Hold it, love it, feel that connection to it. There now, are you ready for the next bit?
Now, at the same scale (the world being 1 metre across) our major energy source, the sun, would be an intense, raging ball of fire that was 87m in diameter; and this football pitch sized sun would be sitting about 6 miles away. As for our local neighbours, Pluto would be about 240 miles yonder.
The next nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, on the same scale, would be about 1,700 miles away, our galaxy, the Milky Way, would be 43 million miles across, and the furthest galaxies away that have been observed by astronomers would be 6 thousand billion miles off into the distance. And that’s just the bits they know about.
Let’s back up a little and go back to our neighbourhood, the Solar system, as the numbers have become too big again to make any real connection. At our current scale, it’s about 500 miles across and contains one fireball the size of a football pitch, a blue and green beach ball, and a scattering of planets, ranging in size from tennis balls to a medium sized house.
Now compress this 500 miles down to the size of a coin, such as an American quarter, or a British 10 pence piece. At this point you would need an even more powerful microscope to even find the Earth, and you would have no chance of seeing whether these tiny specks on this insignificant particle were still busy killing other tiny specks over whose God is the real one. Where was I? Oh yes. So, we’ve got our quarter, or 10p, representing our solar system and we drop in somewhere in America or Europe, because at this scale, our galaxy, would be approximately the same size as either of these land masses.
Starting to get a sense of perspective yet?
Now let’s shrink the Milky Way down to the size of a CD. At this level, Andromeda, the next nearest galaxy, would be sitting approximately 8 feet away, while the edge of the observable universe would be about 9 miles off in any direction.
Ok, how are we doing? Have you managed to get a sense of the sheer size of the universe yet and how big your ego is by comparison?
Right then, let’s tackle time.
The universe has been about for approximately 15 billion years, but this too is a number that doesn’t mean anything to us: lots of zeros; too big to think about. So let’s compress the age of the universe down into something more manageable, something we can grasp, like a century, for example.
If we use this scale, then the Earth would only have come together something like 36 years ago, the first microbial life would have formed some nine years later and dinosaurs would have become extinct about 5 months back.
On the same scale, human beings have been in their current stage of evolution for only 7 hours and 20 minutes of those hundred years, the pyramids were built approximately 18¼ minutes ago, and my entire life counts for about 8½ seconds.
So using scales that I can at least partially begin to grasp, my existence in the universe is the equivalent to something smaller than a sub-atomic particle that exists for only a few seconds on a 10p coin lost somewhere in Europe, that in turn is only as small as a CD in an area of 300 square miles.
And yet I still try and make sense of it all.