How Many Bignesses

You know that thing about space?  About how space is, you know, kind of on the big side?

Douglas Adams mentioned it once, and it is actually The Law of the Internet™ that you have to quote him whenever you’re presenting any item dealing with the size of space.  So in order to satisfy this requirement:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

With that out of the way, I can also offer an insightful observation by Futurama’s Philip J. Fry, who had his own take on the matter:

“Space. It seems to go on and on forever. Then you get to the end, and a monkey starts throwing barrels at you.”

Moving on.

If you’ve a hankering to know just how many bignesses space has, you could start by examining the solar system.  We’re all familiar with the structure: the Sun in the middle, followed by eight planets, if you’re the International Astronomical Union (IAU); or, if you’re me, the Sun in the middle, followed by at least fourteen planets and probably dozens more yet to be found*.

But what we don’t usually get from our astronomy books and star maps is the actual scale of the thing.  Well, thanks to writer and designer Josh Worth, there’s now a chart that does give you a rough idea. Imagine the Moon the size of one pixel on your computer screen…

If The Moon Were Only One Pixel

Click, and scroll, and try not to get too mind-boggled.

Advice: once you’ve loaded the page use the left and right cursor keys to scroll the map.  And, if you want to skip ahead just click on the left or right arrows on the button menu at the top of the screen. That way you won’t miss any text captions (they’re worth reading).

[* In 2006, a decision by the IAU to demote Pluto to the status of ‘dwarf planet’, while promoting a handful of asteroids to the same status, was announced, and is still being argued about, with the IAU, every astronomer on Earth and most people who take astronomy seriously on one side, and me on the other.  It’s like that bit in Blackadder II, after he hires the ship and captain, and they’re adrift at sea:

Edmund Blackadder: Look, there’s no need to panic. Someone in the crew will know how to steer this thing.
Redbeard Rum (the drunken captain): The crew, milord?
EB: Yes, the crew.
RR: What crew?
EB: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.
RR: Opinion is divided on the subject.
EB: Really.
RR: Yerss. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.
EB: Oh, God. Mad as a brush.]


2 thoughts on “How Many Bignesses

  1. Wow, Coldwind, another of your mind boggling posts. I stuck with it to the end and it was well worth it. The comments, as you said, were worth reading, and as I was finger swiping not using a mouse, I truly got the feeling of how far it is between the planets, especially the outer three past the gas giants. The comments of distance combined with the quantum physics references were inspired. My hat off to the man who worked it all out and presented it in such an amusing and relevant format. I didn’t feel I was being talked down to or given any information that was over my head. Thanks for giving me the entertainment for my delectation and delight.

  2. It really is an extraordinary distance, and it’s so easy to underestimate it – even if astronomy’s Your Thing – after seeing diagrams of the the system in so many books and websites.. It’s the scale of the objects that does it, I think: either the planets are drawn out of scale and far too big, or – in the case of maps of the orbits – even the thickness of the lines used can be deceptive.

    For me, it was when I realised that stars – these massive nuclear furnaces so big we can’t really imagine how big they are – are nothing more than tiny sparks in the dark, little momentary flickers of heat and light such as we see climbing briefly out of bonfires. And you suddenly realise how dizzyingly huge all the emptiness really is.

    And then you go and have a lie down and watch some nice, bright, comforting TV, :o)

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