Another interactive way to scale the Universe

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2012 7:06 am

I’m getting email and tweets about a Flash-based interactive tool where you can zoom in and out on the Universe, getting a scale of things from the tiniest fluctuations in the quantum foam of space to the size of the Universe itself. It’s done logarithmically, using factors of ten, and does a pretty good job. It’s called The Scale of the Universe 2. It takes a few minutes to load, so be patient!

What’s funny is, no one who has linked to it seems to have remembered that the two brothers who created it, Cary and Michael Huang, made a very similar tool a little over a year ago (which itself owes its existence to the Eames’ venerable "Powers of Ten"). The new one is better in many ways, of course (though I like the music in the old one better; everyone’s a critic). There are some nice improvements, like some animation, more objects, things that are relatable to kids (the size of the Minecraft world, for example), and more.

One of the things I like about tools like this are the surprising little bits that you learn if you’re really paying attention. For example, at a scale of a few billion kilometers, the only familiar object displayed is the orbit of Neptune. Everything else is a star, and all those stars are red. That’s because the only stars that can get that big are massive red supergiants, stars at the ends of their lives that are far heftier than the Sun. If someone notices that oddity and looks it up, hey, they found out something cool!

Which brings me to one minor thing I’d change about this: clickable links. It’s not hard to stop at someplace along the scale, see something you don’t know ("thou", and "twip"? I had to look those up) and then search for it, but having embedded links to the names would be cool.

I’d also love to see something like this tested in classrooms. I have a pretty decent grasp of scale, so this is fun for me, but I wonder if a kid would get the same feel for it? Right around the one meter mark, where you can see a human, a flower, and an elephant, the scale gets odd. That’s because the scale isn’t linear, it’s logarithmic, changing dramtically quickly with a small movement of the scrollbar. To me, that throws off my internal scaling sense. I wonder if this kind of thing might actually give people a false sense of scale, making very small and very large, distant things seem nearer in size to us? Most people already have a squashed sense of scale — even logarithmically, the Universe is vastly difficult to appreciate; most of it is empty even over large degrees of factors of ten. It’s hard to appreciate even how far away the Moon is, and it’s the closest thing in the sky!

Again, I’m just curious. But I do see this as a nice way to get people hooked on cool stuff, and to get them more curious about the Universe around them. And that’s fine by me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

Comments (40)

  1. I love these tools that demonstrate scale, I recognised it straight away but thought it was a rip off. I blogged about it in 2010 so I looked it up and saw they were the same people.great work on updating it!

  2. did

    *cough* Charles and Ray Eames were husband and wife, not brothers…

  3. erlando

    There’s no links, that’s true. But you can still click on things to get an explanation.

  4. Peter Ellis

    Don’t read the definitions of the X and Y chromosomes if you value your sanity though, they’re painfully bad. Would have benefited from proof-reading by a biologist.

  5. jearley

    I tend to agree with you here. Even though I know what a log scale means, it is not very internalized for me. I’ll test this out on my classes tomorrow, and let you know what the reaction of the students is.

  6. The biggest omission was an off button for the music.

  7. Santiago

    Minecraft’s not a Kids game…

  8. RobinPA

    A handy way to appreciate the distance to the moon is in terms of the number of miles we put on our cars over their lifetime. I’ve driven a couple of cars “to the moon” (+/- 240,000 miles) which is always my goal when I buy them. For my kids, when the odometer passed goals like 60,000 miles, I would tell then that “…we’re a quarter way to the moon and it has taken us over two-and-a-half years to get this far.” From there, you can scale to other planets and the sun. Right now, we have two vehicles that are almost half way to the moon!

  9. R.G.Daniel

    Then there’s the National Film Board’s 1968 “Cosmic Zoom”

  10. Wayne on the Plains

    I’m totally stealing that, although I haven’t driven any cars “to the moon”. Yet.

  11. It IS interesting how a logarithmic scale seems so counterintuitive, yet it is a constant in our senses.
    I saw this one yesterday, off of Jeri Ryan’s G+. LOVED IT!

  12. Cary

    I thought this was great! One of the first attempts to portray scale is a 1968 National Film Board of Canada animation called “Cosmic Zoom”. For some reason it is temporarily unavailable at the NFB site, but here is the youtube link for the 8 minute animation:


  13. Dave Empey

    Vagueofgodalming, to turn off the music, click on the two musical notes at the upper right corner.

  14. D.Rose
  15. amphiox

    Vagueofgodalming, to turn off the music, click on the two musical notes at the upper right corner.

    One can also hit the off switch on one’s speakers, too….

  16. Anyone know the basis for the elementary particle “sizes”?

  17. Anon

    @16. Amphiox: What if you want to listen to something else?

  18. Len Bonacci

    They forgot the Phoenix Asteroids…

  19. amphiox

    Anon @18;

    Oh, you want to multitask your listening?

    Kids these days…. Grumble grumble….

    ….Why, back in MY day……

  20. KAE

    It’s nice that you can use the scrollwheel on your mouse! Needs to have Ringworld or a Dyson sphere though.

  21. Don Gisselbeck

    Can we really appreciate how far it is to anything we haven’t seen and walked to? On earth anything farther is just a given time spent traveling. In space it is just so many zeroes in a number. Even to a scientist the universe is smaller than it was 200 years ago. Then it took months to travel around the world. We’ve gone to the moon in a few days.

  22. VinceRN

    That’s pretty awesome.

  23. Love this work! ūüėÄ

    It gets bonus credit for me by including Pluto’s moons and so many of the ice dwarf planets too. :-)

    Plus I’ve learnt a few things too such as the existence of Amphilicoelias Fragilimus, yoctometers and the Minecraft World. :-)

    Is it just me though or does the string – presumably quantum / cosmological variety not hardware store type – look (impossibly?) smaller than the Planck length?

  24. One Eyed Jack

    Nice, but like other I have my bones to pick.

    The depiction of the atom is horrid. This is a video about relative size, yet we see helium, hydrogen, carbon, and water with orbits that are completely out of scale relative to the size of the particles. The way it is presented, you miss that the vast majority of an atom is completely empty space (sorta).

    And don’t even get me started about the use of classic circular models.

    Overall, it’s a good tool, but if you’re going to make a tool for science education, you shouldn’t ignore simple science.

  25. Nigel Depledge

    @ One Eyed Jack –
    Heh! I kinda get where you’re coming from there.

    When I got to uni and started learning about atomic and molecular orbital theories, it blew my mind. I think this was largely because all preceding presentations of electron orbitals had been circular / spherical.

    The same could be said of the nuclei – they, too, are not spherical.

    Most of this stuff has been known for 20+ years. We should stop teaching a 1950s understanding of the atom and bring the educational tools up to date.

    Having said that, there was a previous thread here that I killed by introducing just a tiny bit of atomic orbital theory.

  26. Jeffersonian

    The scale of VY CMa gave me a mindblown moment/google flurry.

  27. Wes

    Awesome! My only nit-pick is the representation of carbon, water, cesium as Bohr models with 10,000 X oversize protons and neutrons. I would have preferred some kind of fuzzy electron cloud representation at this scale. Aside from this, way cool and a great teaching aid.

  28. jearley

    Results: my astronomy class says that they like it. ‘amazing, fricken sick, bitchin’ (they are watching me post this) in other words they liked it, and were able to get a good idea of the size differences. I did explain the scale before hand. They told me say ‘Good job’.

  29. Doug McLachlan

    Loved it but I am wondering if I am the unwitting victem of the scale problem you discuss Phil.

    Midway through, we are shown the size of the Ort cloud and the distance from the Sun to Proxima Centari. To my eye it looks to me that the distances are surprisingly close. If the Centari stars have their versions of Ort clouds, do they overlap with each other? Do they overlap with the Sun’s?

    I had always understood that comets might be disturbed from their Ort cloud slumber by the gravitational tugs and pushes of other stars as we danced around the galaxy but hadn’t considered that the comets might come from a neighbouring star’s Ort cloud or that the interaction of the two might be responsible for the dive towards the sun.

  30. One thing I miss compared to the first version was the juxtaposition of “Largest virus” against “Smallest particle blocked by a surgical mask”

  31. Eugene

    You know what would be wild? Someone should do a version of this IN a linear scale. You’d have to be super creative with spacing, and the scrollbar would stretch for *ages*, but it’d be totally worth it!

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Eugene (33) said:

    You know what would be wild? Someone should do a version of this IN a linear scale. You’d have to be super creative with spacing, and the scrollbar would stretch for *ages*, but it’d be totally worth it!

    Somewhere on the internet there is a linear scale model of the solar system. I remember seeing it several years ago (maybe the BA blogged about it?). You can spend hours scrolling through the black before you get to the next object.

  33. @Nigel Depledge,

    I think you mean this one:

    It’s incredible how the Universe can both be awe-inspiring (for the objects contained in it) and boring (for the vast, vast, *VAST* amounts of “empty space” between said objects).

  34. TripCyclone

    And it appears that the genius twins behind this are 14 year old boys from California.

    @Did (#2): He didn’t say that the Eames were brothers, he said that this example owes it’s existence to the Powers of Ten that the Eames made. According to this source though, I’m not sure it’s the Powers of Ten that this is based on. Seems these boys inspired by a video about scale within cells.

  35. TripCyclone (36): Actually, I did originally write they were brothers, but fixed it in the text. I couldn’t find an elegant way to keep the error, so I simply changed it. ūüėČ

  36. @Eugene,

    A linear version would be interesting and enlightening, but it would also be incredibly maddening. You’d have to choose between:

    1) having the astronomical objects scrolling at a decent rate and having the small end of the spectrum rush by nearly-instantly
    2) be able to see the small objects and then scroll SLLLLLLOOOOOOOWWWWLLLLYYYYY through the astronomical objects

    All in all, I think that the logarithmic scale works best.

  37. Matt B.

    There’s an annoying amount of empty space to the left.

    You can scroll using left and right arrows. I love that they added in motion, including apparently proportional frequencies of light.

    The atoms and molecules shouldbe shown with the spherical harmonic (sub)orbitals.

    “Betelgeuse” is misspelled.


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