The interactive scale of the Universe

By Phil Plait | January 29, 2010 7:42 am

[Update: I’m getting notes from people saying that the site linked below has some NSFW content on it. I didn’t see that when I posted this; the link itself is rated G and quite safe, but be warned if you click anywhere else.]

A while back I posted a link to a nifty interactive graphic that let’s you zoom down from human scales to that of the atom. In that post, I said I wish someone would make one that goes out to the size of the Universe, too.

My wish has been answered. NewGrounds is a Flash animation portal, and a user by the handle of Fotoshop has created a wondrous and lovely interactive tool to show you the relative sizes of things in the Universe, from the largest galaxies down to the quantum foam. I don’t know what else to say about it except This. Freaking. Rocks.


You can use the slider along the bottom to change the scale, and see where different objects fall. Unlike the famous "Powers of Ten" movie, you’re not touring the Universe or moving through space; this just shows how relatively big things are. It’s really very well done, and gives you a good sense of things. My favorite part is on the smallest end, when you have to go through several factors of ten with nothing happening to get to the Planck scale, the smallest scale in the Universe. It’s really quite a forbidding notion.

I even like the music (though I don’t recognize it; anyone know?). : )

Well done, Fotoshop!

Tip o’ the meter stick to Tocsin.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery, Science, Space

Comments (66)

  1. Wow…just wow. Oh, and anyone seen the latest xkcd? Sad…really sad!

  2. The music is from the Spore video game, which got some acclaim for using a huge sense of scale. In it, you start a creature as a single cell and progress through stages of “evolution” (different minigames) until your species is on land, building cities, and eventually exploring the galaxy.

    There are lots of chances to be creative and design not just your creatures, but buildings, vehicles, and your spaceship. The game broke some ground in terms of design tools and procedural animation, but the gameplay didn’t turn out to be very fun or challenging.

  3. amstrad

    Wow, I love my companies IT department:

    “The URL was blocked, it is in the Restricted Pornography,Erotic / Sex category.”

  4. Blocked! Newgrounds is a bad website apparently. Is this found anywhere else?

  5. I think XKCD was poignant, not sad. And yeah, this is a great tool that I will have to bookmark for my daughter.

  6. LibraryGuy

    ‘IC 1101’? Boring! Can’t we call it the ‘Embiggen Galaxy’ instead?

  7. Larian… yep, I’ll give you poignant! I was being lazy…

  8. Gus Snarp

    Now we need one for time.

  9. Wow, OK, that took me quite a while to read all the items! Very cool, and lots of things I might not have thought to include.

    I think commenter Disarray-yarrasiD on NG is right though; we can see things farther away than 140 Ym (though not more than 14 billion years old!) due to faster-than-light cosmic expansion. Hence the cosmic microwave background mapping…

  10. Don

    Interesting that the new web filtering system NASA Goddard put in place this week has blocked the site linked from “..a wondrous and lovely interactive tool…” with a banner claiming it has adult/porn content. Since I can’t verify that until I get home, can anyone tell me if it really *is* porn, or if the NASA CIO somehow thinks ‘quantum foam’ is just NSFW at NASA.

  11. BrownCoat

    Music appears to be by Cliff Martinez ( Check out the Solaris soundtrack for more of his work.



  12. What’s amazing is that once you’ve read it all, the objects flashing by during a very quick slide back and forth are perfectly recognisable at every scale. I normally find these sorts of distances (both small and large) mind boggling, but something about the way it’s all neatly contained on the slider makes it seem like it can fit into my mind better.

  13. By the way, for finer control, use your arrow keys, don’t slide with your mouse. Sometimes things go by too fast if you use the mouse.

  14. Just wow… can’t wait to show this around!

  15. If you like that you’ll love Nikon’s Universescale. Cheers.

  16. Awww. Goddard Space Flight Center IT has decided is too “adult/porn” to let me view this interactive.
    I guess I’ll have to wait till I get home to see this.

    I loved the micro-scale slider at

    Thanks for all the great content,

  17. Sheesh, Nikon gets the size of the universe wrong too. Shame, because that’s a nifty site as well.

    It’s a bit wordy though, and I think the NewGrounds one is slightly better just for the ability to interact with it and understand it almost immediately.

  18. Now I have to add this to the “Website of the Month” for CAS’s meeting Wednesday!


    Submitted to Digg, so go Digg it!

  19. Gus Snarp

    I’ve got a pretty restrictive firewall at work, but this one got through for me.

  20. Edd

    Err… How do they get the size of the unobservable universe? Where does it get the size of the electron from? Or quarks? They’re all pointlike. Preons? There’s no good evidence for preons. Why are neutrinos smaller than electrons and quarks? Why is a high energy neutrino bigger than a normal neutrino?

    Still, at least the stuff in the middle seems vaguely ok.

  21. Peter F

    He spelled “Ganymede” wrong…

    Man, I’m a nerd. Also, apparently a tiny tiny nerd…

  22. I c licked around a bit and didn’t find anything NSFW.

  23. G.wiz
  24. What Edd said, @20. I love the design of this tool, but the high energy physics section is a mess. The idea of preons was floated decades ago, but there’s been absolutely no experimental support. The sizes listed for the electron and neutrino don’t correspond to anything that I recognize.

  25. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a variant of “my wish has been answered by Newgrounds”, I would have precisely one nickel.

  26. Amy F.

    @Peter F (#21):

    Unless I’m missing your joke.

  27. Chris A.

    I think the NSFW red flags may be because there’s a link along the top of the page labeled “mature.” (I didn’t click to verify, being that I am at work!)

  28. @21: I thought that he spelled Ganymede wrong and made it too small, until I googled ganymed, which I had never heard of.



    PS: Of course, you may already know this, and I’m just dense…

  29. Siphoneuphoria
  30. The presentation clearly defines the diameter of an atom as the spacing between two nuclei in a chemical bond, but no such definition is given for the “size” of elementary particles. Aren’t they simply point-like?

  31. Now I want someone to turn that into a Katamari Damacy mod.

  32. Phil, could you write something about the size of the universe, the visible universe, the comoving size, and all that, please? All in your charming/precise/cool style? Thanks!

  33. Peter F

    @26, 28: No, I’m the dense one, and you exposed my ignorance…

  34. Michael Swanson

    It’s just a Flash game site, but it has sexually explicit games on it.

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Fun, personal & very educational, but the physics is as noted a mess.

    So let’s have more fun and nitpick:

    – Discussing “center of the universe” makes no sense in big bang cosmology.
    – It gets the observable universe wrong (as noted), and its size.
    – It makes little sense to use a molecular part size as a measure of isolated atoms (re carbon).
    – Any size of electrons, quarks and neutrinos is so far set by the compton wavelength, AFAIU.
    – No evidence for preons, standard theory argues against. (No need, inherent symmetry, et cetera.)
    – There is no “fabric” in general relativity. It is an effective theory, so at most you expect particles when quantizing, right? And lo, if you quantize it you get gravitons. Which are still to be observed FWIW…
    – No evidence for quantum foam, observational evidence (see below) and (AFAIU) string theory argues against. Mentioning both foam and string reminds me of inconsistency of post-semitic parallel creation stories FWIW…

    But the biggie:
    – “Planck length […] any length shorter than this makes no physical sense”.

    Tell that to relativity, as it predicts invariance over _all_ relative length and time scales, no exceptions allowed.

    Also, tell that to the new awesome astronomical results where timing of high energy events over cosmological scale resolves smaller relative lengths and times as predicted by relativity! And lo, no “foam” kicking these particles around and splitting them up observationally.

    So give it a rest already! “This [theory of Planck cutoff and quantum foam] is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the [arxiv] ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is [falsification] processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!! THIS IS AN EX-[THEORY]!!”

    Oh, but did this animation actually just declare itself “physical sense”-less? 😀

  36. Mark Wallace

    That’s a great interactive tool. My quick take away:

    We conceive of as much as 60 orders of magnitude in our physical models of reality. But,

    We only have some level of direct influence over 20 orders of magnitude, from about 1e-9 m to 1e10 m. That’s the range of our smallest fabrications to our furthest traveling devices.

  37. RoryM

    Any chance this is hosted on another site? It’s really cool, but I’d like to have a safer link.

  38. Yeebok

    Oddly Electronic Arts haven’t asked for the music to Spore’s galaxy backdrop back.
    Other than that it’s nice.

  39. Ivan

    Thanks much, Torbjörn @ 37. You said everything I wanted to say and more.

    Hopefully the creator of the animation will be interested in correcting it.

  40. Ivan

    Oh, I did want to say that it bugged me that the drawings of EM waves weren’t even remotely sinusoidal. Heh.

  41. Stanley H. Tweedle

    Welcome to the Dark Zone!

    And the word is spelled ‘Photoshop’!

  42. Felix

    Ehr.. same thing as Edd. I’m confused why neutrinos are smaller than quarks and preons.

  43. Ken

    Huh. All I’m getting is ads for some sort of wizard game.

    I can see comments referring to the scale thing, but not the thing itself.

  44. I was about to say the music reminds me of Brian Eno’s ‘Music for airports’, but someone pointed out it’s from the Spore videogame, whose procedural music was designed by Eno. So it makes sense.

  45. I am a real bad astronomer fan, but this link looks really bad.

    Lots of ugly scripting and I understand postings 3 & 4.

    Best regards from a physicist now doing network security.

  46. ElectricSheep

    Wow. That’s amazing. It’s just like the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

  47. Lucky

    It’s the main menu music from the game Spore.

  48. Komojo

    Three thoughts come to mind when looking at this:
    1) How amazing is it that we can detect neutrinos?
    2) It makes sense why we have no experiments that can test string theory, since strings are orders of magnitude smaller than neutrinos.
    3) Being able to visualize such huge objects in the finite space of a flash animation is what makes mathematics amazing. I’ve thought about doing a similar animation to this one, but with the Mandelbrot fractal in the background and zooming in past the Planck length; it doesn’t exist physically, but the fractal keeps going.

  49. Marko

    The score reminded me of the »Solaris« remake by Steven Soderbergh with McElhone/Clooney/Tukur/Davis/Davies (!). Which has been composed to resemble yet another movie score, according to the commentary by Soderbergh and James Cameron. I forgot which score that was.

  50. GrrlieGeek

    The second of those four orange icons pops the toy into its own portal, exiling surrounding links to an inaccessible dimension. I let my kids play there.

  51. The Golden Phoenix

    The music is from Spore.

  52. Proud Father

    For those who are having trouble accessing the game on newgrounds, you can also view it via the author’s personal website at

  53. Steve

    By the Noodly One how do you stop the mind-to-mush music? Aaaargh stopitstopitstopitstopit I’m not in a lift I don’t need unstoppable muzak aaargh my miiiinddddddd.

    The scale of the universe thingy is really cool though.

  54. Here it is on a “safer” website

  55. Cheese

    Soundtrack from Spore, called A Universe in your Hands. YouTube it.

  56. icephoenix
  57. ~The Mage~

    Found a mirror link without the NSFW content.



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