Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

When I was about in the 9th grade a book came into the school library titled COSMIC ZOOM. It was a thin volume, and it set out to describe the universe as we then knew it, from the smallest to the largest. I went through that book over and over, awed by the scale of it.

It began with a shot looking down on a girl sitting in a chair and holding a cat. Each picture after that was ten times closer. They took it all the way down to the atom, which they pictured as a probability swarm of electrons. No attempt was made to envision the atomic nucleus. Back then, no one had even imagined such things as quarks, much less super-strings and quantum foam.

Then we went back to the girl, and each picture was ten times farther away. This book was made by a high school class in Holland, so we saw the school, then the neighborhood, and then part of Amsterdam, and so forth, all the way out to galaxies. Again, no one knew much about the distribution of galaxies back then. I don’t think they were able to detect and chart super-clusters of galaxies. I don’t know if anyone had any notion that the observable universe was 93 billion light-years across. I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.

Since then I’ve seen maybe a dozen short films that do the same thing, of increasing sophistication in this day of easy computer animation and the Internet. Some of them were very good, but this one is the best I’ve seen so far. The narrator is a little weird, but that doesn’t bother me. Here it is:

There were quite a few things that impressed me.

The beginning of the story, the super-strings and quantum foam, are only theories, and I think it is theoretically impossible to observe them and maybe even impossible to confirm or disprove their existence, but they are fascinating theories. Then there’s the Planck particle. I don’t pretend to understand why the smallest thing possible (in our current understanding of the universe) would be a black hole. I’m sure the physics people have their reasons to think that.

Then comes something boggling. You have to draw back about 15 orders of magnitude before you get to the next actual thing: the electron neutrino, which is unimaginably enormous compared to the Planck particle! Then we get the relative sizes of the particles that make up protons and neutrons. Again, the differences in sizes is huge.

Then: I didn’t realize just how big the International Space Station is.

And: The biggest cruise ships these days are bigger than our largest aircraft carriers, and lots bigger than the Titanic.

The Jeddah Tower, under construction, will be quite a bit taller than the insanely tall Burj Khalifa. (Even taller buildings are planned.)

Uluru (formerly Ayres Rock) is smaller than it looks in pictures.

On the graph that contains the largest black hole there is a line that works out to be around one light-month in length. It is labeled “Length of all the atoms in your body laid side by side.” Could that be true? That’s such an incredible distance. And atoms are so incredibly small. However, since the human body apparently contains 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms, I guess it could work out okay. I’m not going to do the math.

When this guy reaches the point where he speculates an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton became president (I’d emigrate in a heartbeat! In fact, for months now I have felt that we all are living in an alternate, unlikely universe) he gets off into wild speculation, but it is the sort of speculation that scientists who study these things come up with, so what the hell.

I don’t know where he got those insanely large numbers at the end. 10 to the 10th to the 115th is quite a bit larger than a googolplex. 10 to the 10th to the 10th to the 122nd is … well, there is just no conceiving that number. I’ll end with this link that I almost understand … an explanation of just how vast a googolplex is.

Vancouver, WA
March 14, 2017