The passage of time (and space)

By Daniel Holz | January 6, 2010 8:00 am
A few weeks ago the AMNH posted a video . It has gone viral, with 1.8 million views and thousands of comments. The video helps us develop a healthy perspective, which is a good way to start off the New Year. It is humbling.

A few weeks ago the American Museum of Natural History posted a video showing a voyage from the surface of the Earth to the last-scattering surface (at the “edge” of the Universe). What makes the video unique is that it is based on real data, not an artist’s conception. The thin ellipses represent actual satellites orbiting the Earth; the dots represent the location of actual quasars billions of lightyears away. (No, the Universe is not composed of pie slices of galaxies, as in the movie. They used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is one of our most comprehensive views of the Universe, but which has only surveyed certain areas of the sky.) Perhaps most amazingly, the video has gone viral–with over 1.9 million views and thousands of comments to date.

I was lucky enough to see an (interactive) preview of this video while I was in New York attending the Amaldi meeting. It is a modern retelling of the Powers of Ten video by Charles and Ray Eames (who, as it happens, also designed fabulous furniture; I’ve been lusting after an Eames recliner for years [how many pieces of furniture have their own wikipedia entry?]). The videos help us develop a healthy perspective, which is a good way to start off the New Year. It is humbling, after all, to realize how insignificant we really are. Yes, we have the gall to change our planet, and threaten all living beings on its fragile surface. But, still, in the grand scheme of things, we’re a grain of sand in a vast and beautiful ocean. We’re totally irrelevant. I find this to be oddly reassuring and calming.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Space
  • http://twitter.com/cosmos4u Dan Fischer

    The success of and enormous praise for this video is frustrating in a way … as it proves that way too few people have visited a modern planetarium recently: Visualizations like this one have been standard fare there for several years! They don’t even require much preparation: Experienced presenters do journeys through the Universe like this live, on-the-fly. And they are orders of magnitude more impressive on a planetarium dome than on YouTube, I guarantee you, especially when they don’t come with elevator music but some astronomer telling a great cosmic story along with it …

  • Giotis

    “But, still, in the grand scheme of things, we’re a grain of sand in a vast and beautiful ocean. We’re totally irrelevant. I find this to be oddly reassuring and calming.”

    This way of seeing things undermines the very foundations of Western civilization which is the dominant civilization in our days. Its basic principle is expansion forever. We will expand through out the known universe and if this universe fades away we will create new universes to inhabit (or maybe we will colonize another part of the multiverse). There are no limits for our amazing species. So what we are doing now in our every day life matters; it matters because it affects the course of humanity in an unforeseeable way.

  • John. S

    “The Universe is huge, man is insignificant” has led to more depressive anti-human thinking than anything else I can think of. As Edward Conze said, ” Spiritual aspirations tend to be swallowd up by this senseless bulk into a sort of nightmare of meaninglessness”.

    Insignificant? We are made of the most rare of materials; tiny, tiny amounts of elements beyond the 99% of hydrogen and helium that is regular matter. Stuff that took hundreds of millions of years to be cooked inside giant stars and dispersed in titanic explosions. Also, Copernicus or Shapley aside, man is at the center of his own Universe. We are in the center of our own time, wherever we look. In size too, we are at the center of the universe; 10E0 meters, compared to to 10E30 for the visible cosmos or 10E-30 for the subatomic world.

    I’m on the side of Frank Ramsey who said, ” I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they can not think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does.” “If we could learn to look at the universe with eyes that are blind to power and size, but keen for subtlety and complexity, then our world would outshine a galaxy”.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    In his book Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes points out that the revelation of the immensity of the universe by astronomers like William Herschel presented a terrible challenge to the outlook of traditional Christianity more than half a century before Darwin’s Origins. It’s rather odd that so much of the hooting and shouting is about evolution: the fundamentalists should really be boycotting the planetariums.

  • CoffeeCupContrails

    Incredible video, Daniel. Thanks for that.

    Yes, there have been similar videos with very impressive animation. But the fact that all those colored dots represent real galaxies that have pinged us from so far away – now that adds a very special flavor to it. And I’m not sure if they have this very data in shows at most Planetariums.

  • http://twitter.com/cosmos4u Dan Fischer

    @CoffeeCupContrails: Planetaria use exactly the same data base from which this video has been rendered – and the data are even free for everyone to download and play with. I’ve seen them in real-time full-dome use for the first time almost five years ago, during a planetarium technolgy sales show at Zeiss in Jena, and since then in many other places.

  • rww

    This time and place are so small, I take it as proof that the spiritual trumps all else.

  • Brian Mingus

    I go to our planetarium here at CU Boulder and I have never seen a zoom out/zoom in view as well orchestrated as this one. I think Dan is defending planetariums irrationally, and not giving this work of art its due credit.

  • Ellipsis

    Does anyone know of an equivalent for the very small, a great video like this one that goes from human scales to inside the atom and back out? There are many outreach videos for particle physics, but a close analogue of this one doesn’t come to mind…

  • Fill

    “This time and place are so small, I take it as proof that the spiritual trumps all else.”

    Total non-sequitur

  • http://bio10101.blogspot.com Farhat

    I too find this “The Universe is huge, man is insignificant” thinking depressing and too similar to the religious, “This earthly life is insignificant compared to the heavenly life that awaits us”. It can, and has, been used to justify trashing all sorts of natural things using arguments like humans are a small part of the biosphere and our effects are insignificant compared to what happens around us.

  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    I was surprised that this journey only went to the astronomical horizon and back. The trip is not really complete until we explore the microscopic and sub-microscopic- right down to the Planck Realm…

  • Doug

    “Also, Copernicus or Shapley aside…”
    While man’s insignificance gives me great peace, it is worth noting that there are a few whom you cannot brush aside.

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    But, still, in the grand scheme of things, we’re a grain of sand in a vast and beautiful ocean. We’re totally irrelevant. I find this to be oddly reassuring and calming.

    Only in the sense that it relieves you from responsibility for your actions and inactions.

    Lots of doods spraying DDT on bald eagles in the 1950s said the same thing, for the same reason.

    They still are.

  • Arrow

    Doug: “Only in the sense that it relieves you from responsibility for your actions and inactions.”

    Not even close.

  • rww

    Conscious quarks, Fill, you and me.

  • Lewis Van Atta

    After viewing this COOOOL video, and reading some of the comments above, seems to me that the “Prime Directive” should not be “non-interference”….it should be “preserve life in all it’s forms and variations”. In all that cosmic vastness, life, and especially intelligent life is likely to be a rare and wonderful thing, and it will likely be different on each planet and star system it occurs in…like snowflakes in a vast field of snow.

  • QUASAR

    Fab’!

    Thanks for posting it!

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  • Cosmonut

    Daniel:
    “But, still, in the grand scheme of things, we’re a grain of sand in a vast and beautiful ocean. We’re totally irrelevant. I find this to be oddly reassuring and calming.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Nothing as refreshing as some cosmic perspective, especially if backed by good graphics :)
    Great post.

    Giotis:
    This way of seeing things undermines the very foundations of Western civilization.

    Wonderful !!! What’s the problem ?

    >Its basic principle is expansion forever.

    Which is precisely why we are in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction on the planet.
    The sooner this principle is trashed, the better.

    >We will expand through out the known universe and if this universe fades away we will
    > create new universes to inhabit (or maybe we will colonize another part of the
    > multiverse).

    Woo hoo !! Pie is very high in the sky today. Maybe even in another universe.
    Personally, I’ll be surprised if we even manage to ‘colonize’ a representative fraction of our galaxy before going extinct.
    Let’s get back on this in another ten million years, shall we ?

    > There are no limits for our amazing species.

    Certainly not when it comes to self-congratulation and grandiose claims at least !

  • http://danielholz.com daniel

    Ellipsis (9) and Sam (12), the “Powers of 10″ video I link to in the post goes in both directions. It’s an artist’s conception, but still quite powerful and well done.

    It’ll be a long time before we “colonize” the rest of our galaxy. I’m not holding my breath. Might make sense to do a good job with our home planet first.

  • Just Learning

    We’re totally irrelevant. I find this to be oddly reassuring and calming.

    I think you have the wrong sign on the first statement. Because we are so small and so alone makes us all extremely important and valuable.

  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    #21…Thanks Daniel! That one has been around for a while…I used it in the classroom many moons ago! Nevertheless it is still a good (and more complete) introduction to the concept of a space-time lattice…a manifold. The next questions which arise are equally profound. Where does scale of this kind come from? Why do we observe from the center? How does what we observe relate to some of the mathematical proportions of SRT/GR such as gravitational time dilation- and why? I share your fascination with this subject because understanding space and time; matter and energy is critical in relating the universe we observe with cosmological reality. From most of these perspectives we would have few clues that information and high complexity even exists in the universe…such things only “come into focus” when the universe is observed in a very special way, from a very speciafic set of space-time coordinates.

    Very thought provoking!

  • Tim

    Am I wrong, or shouldn’t Andromeda be more prominent in this clip? Surely it is about the same size as the Milky Way, and should be visible and should stand out as we zoom in or out from the Milky Way. After all, even though it’s 2,500,000 light years away, it’s 200,000 light years across (somewhat less for the brightest part). Seems to me it should be a bit more obvious.

  • Greg R

    @Tim I agree – seems unlikely we wouldn’t be able to see it more clearly while flying out of the Milky Way and the local group – after all I can see Andromeda from my bedroom window!!

  • B

    ‘We’re totally irrelevant’ is such an inane and stupid conclusion to draw.

  • meremark

    -

    Daniel,

    I have an original Eames recliner and ottoman, as in wikipedia photo, ’60s vintage, well worn (which is either desirable or detracting), and I have been for a few years seeking an appreciative buyer. Defined as one who convinces me the right thing to do is sell it — I vacillate. Or procrastinate … uh, perhaps those conditions are the same thing.

    Please advise.

    Wendi Meremark
    (get my return email in the login data here, somewhere)

    Oh, P.S., I was around at the creation of Powers of 10.

  • http://circumsolatious.blogspot.com/2010/01/higher-vision-of-time-is-needed-to.html Lori Tompkins

    This video and the responses to it remind me of a quote/excerpt I just put up on my blog: ‘We cannot divorce ourselves from this truth and cosmic function. We are integral parts of the cosmic manifestation, minute as we may be in comparison to the vastness of the universe. However, does this minuteness not reflect then the very process of passage from the Unmanifest to the Manifest which has been described herein? We are, as it were, those very Seeds. We are those infinitesimal ‘eyes that see’, through which the Absolute knows, and thus knowing enjoys Itself. And this is the magic and the mystery of human birth. We are endowed with all the properties of the Transcendent and are Its instruments for this supreme Act of creative deployment of Itself.’ – Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, ‘Time & Imperishability’.

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