From Tibet to Infinity and back again

By Phil Plait | December 18, 2009 12:35 pm

A bunch of folks have let me know about a new video that starts in the Himalayas and accelerates you out to the edge of the Universe, and then back again. It’s done by the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and was directed by data visualization expert Carter Emmart. Make sure you click the high-def button!

Cooooool. I’d love to see this in the AMNH planetarium. That place rocks.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (35)

Links to this Post

  1. The scale of the universe, continued « Meng Bomin | December 19, 2009
  2. The Known Universe « Hyper tiling | December 20, 2009
  1. Robert E

    Wow. Just, wow.

    That’s an incredible moving little clip.

  2. Gary Ansorge

    Interesting that they chose Tibet as their starting place. Like the Nobel Peace prize, this provides a spotlight on an area that deserves notice.

    Cool imagery. We’re just so fraking SMALL. If another sentient species DOES exist(elsewhere), it’s no wonder they haven’t found us yet. Our Earth is just an atom on a light year wide beach(and it’s at least that long).

    GAry 7

  3. Aerimus

    I never really thought about how small our own transmissions are in comparison to the rest of the galaxy. Small indeed.

  4. Neat, but I think this is a case where a little well-crafted narration would help. What needs to be emphasized for the general public is the fact that all those shiny dots, and eventually all that “haze” (for simplicity’s sake, ignoring dust) in the galaxy are suns.

    The sheer numbers of suns, and hence probably planets, cannot be overstated, as the majority of the public just hasn’t a clue.

    Ultimately, I think that would be a more meaningful takeaway from an experience such as this, rather than a miniaturized view of the whole universe, which, frankly, once it becomes a small graphic — even projected on a huge planetarium dome — isn’t all that impressive without the numbers already planted in your head.

    AMNH…I work cheap. Hire me?

  5. David T

    I’m reminded of the Total Perspective Vortex:

    “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot have is a sense of proportion.” –HHGTTG

  6. BJN

    Are these scales shown as they appear from Earth today? The actual distances would be much larger when adding thousands, millions and billions of light years of expansion since the emission of light we’re imaging today, no?

  7. This was pretty, but just okay. I agree, it’s in need of compelling narration and more graphic notations. It reminded me of the part in Phil’s book (Hey! Phil has a book!) where he talks about the public’s difficulty in comprehending large numbers. In the movie, once you get just a dozen LY from earth, it ceases to have any real meaningful reference point to anchor your understanding or ultimate comprehension upon.

    I’m currently fascinated with the idea of making difficult to understand concepts more comprehensible to the lay public, but it’s a daunting task. It’s kind of like trying to get a point across to someone in a foreign language they’ve never heard. There’s only so much direct translation you can do for you without at least at least a basic understanding of grammar and nomenclature.

  8. Chip

    Beautifully done. Also a nice follow-up to the classic “Powers of 10” film from the 1970s – which, for those who haven’t seen it, used now old-fashioned cell animation to take you from a picnicking couple in a Chicago park to the edge of the known Universe and then back into the microscopic and atomic space in the man’s hand. Both this video and the older film are great.

  9. David Vanderschel

    Yes, this is an impressive way to indicate the scale of things.

    I wonder why it shows only the orbit of Earth’s moon and not a representation of the moon itself. (There is a relative size issue there that is not depicted.)

    Too bad they thought they had to make the zoom monotone. They could have panned over and checked out some moons of Saturn and/or Jupiter as well. Checking out a different star system or galaxy from up closer could be interesting as well.

    I would have appreciated some continuously present indicators of the distance of the viewpoint from ‘home’ and the the speed at which it was moving away or back – an odometer and speedometer if you like.

  10. The orbits seemed to be accurate – I was able to visually detect Mars’s eccentricity. But I was looking for a better “yardstick” to visualize the scale outside of the solar system. David’s (#9) odometer and speedometer are good ideas, but also just a distance scale the shrinks as we zoom out, similar to the scale in the corner of the small scale java app posted earlier on Bad Astronomy that started with a coffee bean and a grain of rice.

  11. Patrick OConnell

    The “odometer” and “speedometer” would have to show the distances and velocities in exponential notation (example: 6.023 E23 which happens to be the number of atoms in a gram mole), which would confuse anyone who didn’t learn about those notations in high school. That’s probably why they didn’t quantify the mind boggling distances–too confusing for the millions in the USA alone who didn’t take physics or chemistry in high school.

  12. Nice Video, but as it zoomed out towards the visible horizon.. I’m considering myself somewhat educated in regards to astronomy, but evidently something escaped me there: a shout-out to Mr. Plait, how exactly does it come together that there seemed to be two rather largeish cones of unmapped space around? I can imagine part of it because of the milky way due to its obscuring dust (someone send megamaid already.. ūüėČ ), but this doesn’t seem to account for all of it?
    What am I missing?

  13. The “odometer” and “speedometer” were, I believe, part of the original Eames’ “Powers of Ten” film.

    As Artbot noted, once you get past a certain point, the frames of reference are just so far out of scale from the norm, pretty much any measure does little to convey meaningful information.

  14. Thomas Siefert

    Saw a similar film as a child, must be about 30 years ago.
    It started with a boy fishing from a row boat. The view then went out through space like this one, but when the view returned to the boy, the zoom went to one of his fingers and the journey continued down through cells, molecules and atoms.

  15. Thomas Siefert

    Ah, found it!

    It’s called Cosmic Zoom:

  16. Kurt_eh

    David, don’t forget the Guide’s introduction!

    “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

  17. gopher65

    That’s a very depressing clip. It’s a long way from here to … anywhere. The difference between the distance to Luna and the distance to Mars is especially telling.

    That is without a doubt the best zoom-out side (ie, not showing atoms and such) of the various “powers of 10” clips that I’ve seen. Some great work there.

  18. Calamity Janeway

    @12 Mathias R

    I, too, was wondering if the cone areas of unmapped galaxies were due to being not able to see through our own galaxy plane very well?

  19. Mr. D


    the one thing that really caught my attention was the distance that human tranmissions have propogated through space. That is a sort of sphere of influence we have had on the universe and it is tiny! Beyond that small sphere, no being could have any hope of knowing we are here.

    Great video.

  20. @12 Mathias and #18 Calamity Janeway:

    I believe those galaxies are from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, SDSS; they only surveyed small portions of the sky. There’s a nice plot on the sidebar of ‘sdss dot org’ that looks exactly like the data in the movie.

    In brief: Yes, the cones were because they avoided our own galactic plane, although SDSS’s sky coverage (check the link in my name for sky coverage plots) is more incomplete than that. They did the galactic cap, the slices of the sky seen in the movie, and they haven’t released anything else yet. And there are regions of the sky only visible from the Southern Hemisphere that they’ll never be able to hit from Apache Point Observatory, New Mexico.

    I have to agree with #9 David Vanderschel that the zoom shouldn’t have been monotonic; I was disappointed they never pointed out the Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, or even the Andromeda Galaxy. Then again, they had to draw the line somewhere, and this was more about size than contents.

    The CONTENTS of the Universe are for Phil’s TV show to deal with (right? right?)

  21. Giles

    Interesting and sobering animation, but why did the AMNH feel the need to add “Celestial” music¬†?

  22. Paul M

    What an amazing group here – I was curious about the unmapped regions, and naturally, others already have already asked (12,18) and an answer provided (20).


  23. 4. kuhnigget Says: “AMNH‚ĶI work cheap. Hire me?”

    So, what experience have you had? :-)

    – Jack

  24. My problem with these sorts of things is that you start out with a sense of going out, but you also have to be getting larger. If you were just to be departing Earth in a straight line (or whatever shape your path would take in a curved universe), you wouldn’t see galaxies, then clusters of galaxies, then super clusters, etc., you’d just see more and more of the same thing we already see around us, just re-arranged.

    The same thing happens in reverse in the “zoom in” on the Cosmic Zoom films. As you descend from above, you are obviously getting closer, but you also have to be getting smaller. That one is a little easier to wrap your head around.

    – Jack

  25. Zucchi

    Great visual work. I’d like to see a video like this that takes a tour of all the stars where we’ve identified extrasolar planets, with a rough outline of the systems based on the best available knowledge.

  26. Phil, we have the same software for the flight from Earth to the WMAP up at our place… we can leap out from Earth pretty much any time we want.

    Kuhnigget — writing scripts for scenes like that are how I make my living — for fulldome shows, and more recently for exhibits and short video documentaries. It’s fun, challenging, exhilirating, and not as easy as it looks. It’s great to have the software and a dome to play with…

    and…the chance to write about the cosmos at the same time we travel through it?


  27. I just watched that with music from the Progressive band Tool, I listened to the song “wings of Marie, Part 1” which is 6:11, if you start the song at the moment when the credits role up at the beginning, 0:11, it works out perfectly

  28. Wonderful. Stunning. I love the beauty and grandeur of the universe.

  29. Buzz Parsec

    Whale: “What’s that big brown thing approaching me? I wonder if it will be my friend?”

    Bowl of Petunias: “Oh no! Not again!”

  30. @ ccpetersen:

    writing scripts for scenes like that are how I make my living

    I are a good writer, too! :)

    (Just yankin’ yer chain, cc. I like your stuff.)

    @ Jack Haggerty:

    So, what experience have you had?

    You mean apart from slappin’ a few smarty pants around? ūüėČ

    Actually, my one interview with a big-name planetarium director (whose institution shall go unnamed — KOFF!CAS!KOFF!) was a big-time disaster. The guy wouldn’t consider any visual that wasn’t “real data.” Hence, he was going to bore people to death in glorious scientific truthfulness. My Disney experience didn’t cut much slack with the dude. Never did find out if he got his show done. Don’t really care, frankly.

    You are absolutely right about the viewer’s apparent size increasing. I once got into a rather heated debate with a “science advisor” at Mauschwitz over this very point. Didn’t get that job, either. Hmm… a pattern seems to be emerging here…

  31. @20 DigitalAxis: Much appreciated, cheers. :)

  32. Pieter Kok

    There is something about the speed of the zoom in this film that is just right: I really got a brief sense of the scale of the galaxy right after the sphere of our earliest radio signals. If the zoom speed was much slower or faster, I think this effect would disappear. Any extended version with narration and other bells and whistles (which I think would be great) would have to get around this fact.

    One thing I really missed is the demarcation where the zoom velocity breaks c. My guess is that it would be just beyond the moon’s orbit. I think that would surprise quite a few people.

  33. T.E.L.

    Jack Hagerty,

    That’s exactly right. To someone who doesn’t know any better, this sort of presentation would give the impression that the Universe is just like a lot of people think of it: a huge three dimensional sphere of stuff surrounded by a lot of empty space.


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