Scaling the Universe

The Known Universe is a 21st-century upgrade to our visualization of the sheer size of things


As we continue to explore our world, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand exactly how massively big it is…and how tiny we are in comparison. Most of us will never travel to space — much less to far reaches outside our solar system — and get the chance to stick it all inside our visual cortex to put it in perspective.

Our efforts to send people to the moon seemed to cause an existential crisis regarding our place in the universe, and in 1968 two exceptional short films were produced in response.  Cosmic Zoom was one of the first valiant tries to make the size of things knowable. Many of you might have seen this Canadian-produced movie in school, watching as it zoomed from a boy rowing his canoe out, out, out to the edges of our (then) knowable universe and back again. The American film Powers of Ten was the other big hit that year, starting in a park on a summer day and stepping back at, well, powers of ten.

Another high-quality visualization, the Interactive Scale of the Universe Tool, was made just a couple years ago. It uses a bar you can drag from yocotometers to yottometers (and if those two words are the coolest thing you learn today, we don’t blame you).

We got to thinking about these scaling attempts when we stumbled upon the most recent version. The Known Universe, produced by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is essentially a 21st-century upgrade to Cosmic Zoom. The graphics are from scientific data pulled from their Digital Universe Atlas, a project they’ve maintained with the Hayden Planetarium for the last decade. The video is part of an exhibit, Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe, that runs at AMNH through May 10.

Update: One of our colleagues reminded us of another interactive visualization by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies that allows you to compare astronomical objects to relatable every day objects, like basketballs and baseballs, and even overlay distances onto Google Maps.