Experiencing Scale through Science

Without microscopes, telescopes, or computers, humans of the recent past had few ways to experience reality at scales much different from everyday life. Looking up at the sky, out at the ocean, or across a canyon gave us an appreciation for a few extra orders of magnitude. To go any further required the imagination.

Today, thanks to technology and science, we have the tools to understand reality at mind-altering scales. We can now think about time and space at dimensions that would have been literally inconceivable to people just a few generations earlier.

In this post, I'd like to share some of the material that I've been collecting, videos and passages that have produced in me a sense of awe at the size and complexity of the world we live in.

If you have any links in your collection, I'd love to see them. Please share on this Quora board.

Pale Blue Dot

Let's start with a classic, courtesy of Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

DNA Replication

A beautiful 3D rendering of what is arguably life's most fundamental process:

Think about how small, fast, and intricate that machine is, and how many times it operates every second in nuclei all across the planet.

Mandelbrot Zoom

A 15-minute zoom into the holy depths of the Mandelbrot set:

See also the Mandelbulb!

Mandelbulb video.

The History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less

From Eric Shulman's 1997 Ig Nobel Prize acceptance speech, telling the story of how matter has found ever more complex ways of organizing itself:

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Strong nuclear interaction. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Density perturbations. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Cluster formation. Reionization? Violent relaxation. Virialization. Biased galaxy formation? Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Compression. Opaque hydrogen. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Condensation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Water dissociation. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms. Oxidation. Mutation. Natural selection and evolution. Respiration. Cell differentiation. Sexual reproduction. Fossilization. Land exploration. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Glaciation. Homo sapiens manifestation. Animal domestication. Food surplus production. Civilization! Innovation. Exploration. Religion. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Exploration. Colonization. Taxation without representation. Revolution. Constitution. Election. Expansion. Industrialization. Rebellion. Emancipation Proclamation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Immigration. World conflagration. League of Nations. Suffrage extension. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. United Nations. Space exploration. Assassinations. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Computerization. World Trade Organization. Terrorism. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?

What I love about this is the juxtaposition of cosmology, biology, and humanity, all woven into a single narrative.

Inner Life of the Cell

This video, created for Harvard's MCB department, takes the dull, lifeless pages of a biology textbook and brings them vividly to life:

I wish I could have seen this video in high school. I would have paid a lot more attention after that.

Science Saved My Soul

This is on the longer side (15 min), and it gets a little aggressive in the middle, but it's well worth watching. The first third and the last third are especially beautiful:

Star Sizes

Classic video showing the Earth's size in relation to the larger planets and stars:


Droste Effect in Conway's Life

An epic Game of Life video, possible thanks to the amazing Hashlife algorithm:

Originally published June 26, 2012.