Monday, 25 January 2010

Getting things in perspective

Yesterday, whilst languishing in my sick-bed, I was musing about my occasional hobby of astronomy and wanted to look up online some information about galaxies. That led me to this website which, as the name suggests, is a handy 'Atlas of the Universe'. What is really fascinating is that it begins at the level of 12.5 light years from the Sun and zooms out in stages - the solar neighbourhood, our local arm of the galaxy, etc.

Where it gets truly mind boggling is at the level of the local galactic superclusters - groups of galaxies where our own galaxy is just one dot amongst thousands, consisting of 200,000,000,000,000 stars (200 trillion).

Finally, we get a picture of the whole universe (and yes, there really is a 'you are here' sign, though it points to the Virgo Supercluster, rather than just us).

The temptation, of course, is to see ourselves as 'insignificant' against such vastness. The curious thing, though, is that we ourselves seem to be about a third of the way along the spectrum from the very smallest (subatomic) to the very biggest (whole universe) objects, as can be seen here and here. From the perspective of a single cell, then, we ourselves are truly 'vast'. And from the perspective of a virus, a cell is huge. Yet right now I am experiencing the importance of the very very small when it comes to the very very big. (The scale difference between me and a virus is about that between me and the entire globe.)

John Richardson
24 January 2010

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