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January 13, 2004

How big is space?

I came across this amazing graphic today. I wish I knew where it came from -- it just turned up on the 'pile but I don't have the attribution.

The graphic shows all of space in a single chart. Come with us: open it now and expand it to full screen, so you can see the entire horizontal aspect. Now scroll to the bottom. In a delightfully Copernican twist, the chart begins with the centre of the Earth. Now scroll up, up, through the Earth's mantle and see the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope barely skimming the surface. As you scroll up further, you're accelerating at an ever-increasing pace, matching the logarithmic scale of the vertical axis measuring distance from the Earth. Pass through the cluster of near-earth satellites and through the ring of geostationary satellites to find the moon, alone in its own empty region of space. Accelerating further, we shoot past the inner planets and the asteroid belt, which we find to be more of a diffuse band than an impenetrable fortress of floating rock. Out now past the outer planets we find the Voyager probes on their lonely journey beyond the solar system.

There's a long quiet period now as we pass through the Oort cloud, birthplace of the comets, before we finally reach the closest star: Proxima Centauri. We journey on to pass the other famous landmarks of the Milky Way: bright Sirius, the Horsehead Nebula, the Milky Way's center itself. Beyond there we're in uncharted waters until we pass out of our home galaxy entirely and into the deepest intergalactic void.

Travelling faster than imagination itself now, we find ourselves amongst the rather ironically named Local Group of galaxies to some intriguing landmarks of the distant Universe. What is this CfA2 Great Wall? What does the Great Attractor attract? Why avoid the Zone of Avoidance? I'm intrigued and inspired to find out.

At the end of our journey we've travelled to the outer limits of perception and backwards to the beginning of time to find the firstborn stars and there, at the very end of time and space, the Big Bang itself.

I haven't felt this sense of awe for a long time. Only the opening sequence to the film Contact came close. Perhaps we're closer to the Total Perspective Vortex than we thought.

Posted by david at January 13, 2004 01:05 PM | TrackBack
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This reminds me of a film called 'Powers of Ten' by Charles and Ray Eames. It starts off at a picnic in a park in Manhattan and zooms out a power of ten every ten seconds. When it gets to the edge of the universe, it's reversed, and you go all the way in, right down to quarks. It's an amazing idea - try and find it if you can...


Posted by: Hamish on March 18, 2004 04:37 AM
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