The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Total Perspective Vortex

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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.

Pathetic really.


quinn said...

WEll,,, I have to admit I feel rather insignificant now.

However, I absolutely love listening to your voice explaining this to me, not only because ..well..( its so sexy)...but because I was able to understand a little more of what you were trying to get across......well...mostly because you sound sexy.

rebecca said...

The thing that scares me is all that emptiness in between the quarter and the rest of Europe. Makes my head hurt. Then gives me the shivers. Time to go watch TV and not think about it any more.... sometimes oblivion is good.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I wanted to hum "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" during bits of that: ...just remember, how amazing and unlikely was your biiiiiiirth, da dee dee dee...

It's all just mind-boggling. And then we have to consider the fact that we may be only one of squillions of universes in a multiverse. That idea is gaining currency fast amongst theoretical physicists.

More graspable, and chillingly so, is the fact that scientist have just moved the Doomsday Clock 2 minutes close to midnight because of global warming. I think we're at 5 to, now.

Anonymous said...

My head hurts now. And to think we are the cause for global warming, hmmmmmmmmph.

Nice post Kim. I was going to blog about cleaning my son's vomit out of the sink but after reading your blog tonight, I just couldn't bring myself to doing it.

I can't worry about THE universe when mine seems to be spinning out of control.

Anonymous said...

Really... It's all about perspective... Watched "An Inconcenient Truth" (with Al Gore), quite disturbing reality we are facing.

Anonymous said...

Quite humbling indeed. Great post. Keep it real, fo' real.

Anonymous said...

Meh, it's all math.

I don't feel humbled by vastness. I'm more humbled by the fact that of my cats is smarter than I am.

Kim Ayres said...

Quinn - well if I sound sexy talking about vast distances in the universe, either you had a crush on your physics teacher, or you have a fetish for English accents. Still, I'll indulge myself in a bit of smugness for a moment and allow myself to feel like I have a sexy voice. I think you're in a very small minority though

Rebecca - when we struggle enough to find a coin that's just dropped down the back of the sofa, having the whole of Europe to look for it does seem a bit much

Sam - If most of us are wiped out by rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and skin cancer, then no one in the universe is going to miss us.

Bstrong - you should be using your son's vomit to show him how the planets and stars are arranged, and how the plug represents a black hole...

Never miss an opportunity for educating the kids

Stinkypaw - still not seen it yet, although I keep hearing good reviews.

FLG - thanks

Andraste - I like cats, but I'm allergic to them

Anonymous said...


Fortunately for me I put all the planets in tissue paper and flushed them all down the toilet. I think there were a few asteroids, stars and UFOs along with them.


quinn said... are pretty close..In high school I excelled in any classes where my teachers spoke with an accent.
MY biology and Chemistry teacher had a heavy german accent and geee....wonder why I averaged 90's in his class????....MY french teacher too..I guess I just tend to pay more attention to their words and so I tend to retain more of what is said...

So, you can know not only do I love to hear your voice...I actually HEAR what you say.....

( now if I actually understand all that is being conveyed the jury might be out on that ...LOL))

Binty McShae said...

Nice post Kim, enjoyed listening to that after the crappy day I just had. Perspective is indeed the word.

Sam, wrong song darlin'! The line you quote is from a different Python ditty, from the end of the film 'Meaning of Life'.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Right you are, Binty.

Kim Ayres said...

Bstrong - a few Unidentified Floating Objects in the toilet is never a good thing

Quinn - I remember when I was in Canada, someone once, quite genuinely, said to me in a broad Canadian accent "Gee, it must be funny you coming over here where we don't have any accents!"

"My dear chap," I explained, "I appear to be the only person in this country without an accent."

He just looked at me funny though.

Binty - thank you

Sam - Binty's right - here's a link to the lyrics from Python's The Galaxy Song, though you can also find it on YouTube if you look.

Dr Maroon said...

They've got a big long stick in the British Museum, or is it the Natural History Museum? Anyway, it's marked off like a ruler into various sections of life on Earth.
The dinosaurs have a HUGE big section to themselves, while we hvae a tiny tiny bit at the end.
I've always remembered that.
We are just the scabby end of a stick.
How very true that is.

justin said...

Very nice indeed. And here I am trying to figure out at exactly what time the sun will rise tomorrow. So pathetic.

quinn said...

HAHAHA..yes, I suppose there is always the other side of the coin eh . lol..

I am sure our accent doesn't sound sexy to your ear though>?? probably sounds more "twangy".lol.

Kim Ayres said...

Dr Maroon - the scabby end of a stick - I like it

Justin - dare I ask why?

Quinn - I have to admit, accents have never really made that much difference to me. A soft Scottish or Irish accent I find particularly pleasant on the ear, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it sexy.

quinn said...

okay..I just have to's cause I really don't get out much..humour me

Anonymous said...


Justin said...

Why, to predict the future and wow the natives of course.

Kim Ayres said...

Quinn - of course I'm humouring you. It's your previous comments about my sexy voice that led me to record another blog entry. I was in need of an ego boost :)

Kats - Why do I get the feeling this could be your answer to everything?

Justin - ah, how very wise.

Anonymous said...

We may sometimes feel insignificant, but we ARE significant in ways that may not immediately seem obvious. The reality of the senses is merely one interpretation of the Greater Reality that lays beyond human perception.

Nice post, Kim.

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