Scale Matters: Beyond Our Eyes

If you haven’t checked out Monday’s and Tuesday’s blog post, it’d be best to start there! This week we’re having a series of posts discussing scale and size. I’m hoping you all still have your imagination hats handy. 

We’ve discussed and pondered the very tiny, and the unimaginably ginormous this week. I know it’s asking a lot to try and comprehend the size of every single component of the universe, in addition to the vastness of the universe itself. No one can be expected to explore everything in existence. Luckily, scientists do not try and approach the issues with such a wide vision. Divide and conquer! Teamwork! 

But how? How do you study what you can’t see with the naked eye or what you can’t reach with current technology?

Inventions! (Do you remember the deep voiced commentator from Bill Nye the Science Guy? Imagine him saying “IN-VEN-TIONS!”)

Before any form of microscopy could arise, humans first had to gain a basic understanding of magnification. Surely at some point in history (around the first century AD) some curious fellow noticed that when you look through transparent crystal that is thickest in the middle, what over object you peer at becomes seemingly larger. 

And thus, Magnifying Lenses were invented. Named ‘lenses’ for their similar shape to lentils. 


Not a lot happened to advance this technology for a few centuries. Imagine living in a time when people had no conception of what we have learned in just two days. They were really missing out! 

Eventually people must have grown curiouser and curiouser, because in the late 1500’s Dutch father and son, Zaccharias and Hans Janssen, experimented with lenses in a tube, which would eventually lead to more advanced instruments. The telescope was emerging. Some 20 years later, Galileo took a short break from figuring the laws of pendulums and chucking objects off the Tower of Pisa to grab a snack and work out the principles of lenses and a focusing device. No big deal.

He turned his attention to the sky and viewed the moon (it was rough!), Jupiter (it had moons?!), and Saturn. 

Compound Microscope

However, the true father of microscopy is Anton van Leewenhoek of Holland, and not just because his name is very entertaining to say in the wee hours of the morning after pulling an all-nighter. 

Dissecting Microscope

No, he actually taught himself how to grind and polish the most advanced curvature in lenses for his time and quite some time after. Since he was the first and only person to reach these magnification levels at this point, he was also the first person to witness some of the tiny marvels of life. His microscopes were the first to see and aid in describing: bacteria, yeast plants, life in a drop of water, and the circulation of blood corpuscles. 

His advancements were so impressive that no one could rival his lenses for a few hundred years!

Both compound and dissecting microscopes require illumination by some sort of light source (i.e. light microscopes). However, even in an absolutely perfect situation, they cannot be used to distinguish objects smaller than 0.275 micrometers (or half the wavelength of light). As we’ve recently learned, there is a whole mess of things to look at beyond this limit. Can’t learn much looking at a blur. 

SEM – Scanning Electron Microscope
TEM – Transmission Electron Microscope

Hark! The arrival of the electron microscopes in the 1930’s provided us with a means to magnify objects up to 1 million times! Provided they wouldn’t mind resting in a high vacuum (most living specimen mind). In these microscopes, electrons are sped up so that when beams are focused onto a sample, they are either absorbed or scattered and form an image on an electron-sensitive photographic plate. 

In addition to advancing science with their improved optics, these powerful microscopes have lead to amazing works of micro-art

Butterfly egg perched on a plant tendril to avoid ant predation. Martin Oeggerli.

In the last hundred years, we have made some incredible advancements in technology.

An Array of Radio Telescopes

Radio Telescopes – Differing from optical telescopes, these directional radio antenna operate in the radio frequency. Despite what Jodie Foster would have you think, these do not return data in the form of sound, but rather pictures.

Do not go to New Mexico’s Very Large Array and ask to listen for communications.

Trust me on that one.

Multi-Telescope Observatories – Twin telescopes allow increased stability in optics due to two smaller mirrors in place of one large, fragile one.

Hawaii’s Big Island hosts two of the world’s most important astronomical viewing sites.

Hubble Space Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope – Carried into orbit in 1990, this monster of a telescope is still in operation today, thanks to numerous missions to update and maintain the many instruments and components. Like the electron microscopes, this masterpiece has also managed to provide images that are simply works of art.

NASA pointed Hubble at a particularly dark spot in our night’s sky. The following image is the result and contains more than 10,000 galaxies.

Hubble Deep Field Image – the most detailed visible light image of some of the oldest (most distant) galaxies. 

Mars HiRise – The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment is a powerful, and highly useful, camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Images from HiRISE have aided in locating areas of interest so that they may be later explored by the everlasting bunny, err Opportunity rover. Perhaps this camera, or its successor, will be able to watch over an eventual manned mission on Mars.

Artists Rendition of the Hi-RISE aboard
the Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Questions of the Day:
Which of these instruments would you like to look through?
What would you look at?
What kind of advancements do you think lay ahead of us in these fields?

Don’t forget to participate in Hubble’s Hidden Treasures! You have access to ALL OF THE IMAGES FROM THE HUBBLE TELESCOPE! Two slide shows of the contest Flickr accounts are on the right side of my blog. Go, be inspired!

Scale Matters: What is Big?

If you haven’t checked out yesterday’s blog post, it’d be best to start there! This week we’re having a series of posts discussing scale and size. I’m hoping you all have your imagination hats handy. I never leave home without mine.

Earthrise – by William Anders

After discussing the tiny, microscopic aspects of our world yesterday it’s easy to see ourselves as these giants towering over these minuscule particles. In fact, when consider our role and impact on this planet, it’s hard not to feel big, brave, and onto of the world. We’ve explored the deepest trenches of the oceans, climbed to the top of the greatest mountains, and blasted to the moon and looked back at our planet.

And then, once more, we realized once more how small we are.

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” – Jim Lovell

Cloudy skies lend to the view. Looked like a painting.

My most recent ‘OMG – I’m tiny’ moment was the moment I walked up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and looked out at the natural wonder that stretched before me. I thought I had seen some pretty awe-inspiring, gigantic things in my life. Whales off of the South African coast. Giant Sequoias in California. But they all paled in comparison to  the giant painted canvas that is the grandest of all canyons. It’s important to note that the Grand Canyon is not the largest, longest, or deepest canyon, but is still rightly so the grandest.

We can move on to even more expressive depths. By stroke of luck, this week the man behind XKCD penned an impressive array of the depths of lakes and oceans. I was shocked to see that the Deepwater Horizon oil well went even deeper than James Cameron’s epic journey to the deepest trench in the ocean. Even a blue whale, the largest animal to have ever lived (that’s right, larger than all of the dinosaurs) is a mere blip on this scale. 

Click to enlarge.

What I’ve found is that there is always something bigger that serves to make me feel like a dust speck on a pretty blue marble. Even as far as our own solar system goes, we’re on the petite side. Jupiter dwarfs us and is promptly dwarfed in return by the Sun.

Our solar system to scale.

Well, at least we can rest assured that the star in our solar system is quite a whopper, right? I mean, the Sun, she’s pretty big. Look at her! No? Really, are you sure?

So there are suns that make our Sun appear to be a tiny dot. And THOSE ginormous suns are themselves dots among a giant expanse of galaxies. And those galaxies are specks in the great, vast, really, really, REALLY large expanse that is the universe.

And to think, that at one point at the very beginning of time, all of this (all the planets, stars, galaxies, etc) began at one unimaginably dense, infinitesimal point from which everything expanded.

It boggles the mind to try and comprehend these vast scales, but I suggest that you try. Go outside tonight and look at the stars, if you can, and think about the sizes and distances involved.

Remember from the video in this post, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, talks about how when most people think about the size of the universe that it makes them feel small. But when he thinks about the universe he feels big, huge even, as he is (as we all are) made of and are part of everything.

This website touches on some of the biggest objects in the universe. Can you try and guess what these structures are?

Questions of The Day:
Did you guess the biggest objects correctly? What were your guess and what surprised you about the answers?
Are you enjoying this weeks series on scale?
What is the biggest thing you’ve seen on our lovely planet?

If you still haven’t had enough of this topic, then I highly recommend the following video. It’s 45 minutes long but it can help you visualize and provide additional information and astounding facts.

Scale Matters: What is Small?

What is the smallest thing you’ve ever seen?

Now, what’s the smallest thing you can imagine?

Imagine something even smaller.

Even smaller.

How about even smaller?

How small is it? How would you measure it? With what units?

This video, narrated by Stephen Fry, has inspired this weeks look at size and scale. Check it out and then come back for more!


Woah! A nanometer is pretty tiny! If you recall, my research looks at a specific species of micro-algae, Nannocloropsis salina. These guys are only one cell, and can only be seen under a microscope. How many nanometers across are they?

You’ll have to take my word for it, but the diatom on the left is about 34 um,
while the four N. salina cells are each about 4 um. I can place rulers on the cells individually
within the program, but they don’t save in the image files. Odd!
So these itsy-bitsy, unseen with the naked eye cells are thousands of nanometers wide. The diatom is about 34,000 nanometers long! In fact, both are so big that we measure them in micrometers (µm). 

A look at different size prefixes.
Let’s think about this. N. salina is just one cell, and it’s 4,000 nm in diameter. What makes up a cell?
We can break down even this basic building block into molecules and atoms. How big might they be? What can you find inside of an atom? How big are electrons, neutrons, and protons? Can you go even smaller?

Check out this fantastic website for help answering these questions with an iterative, visual module of the universe.

Surely there can’t be many things that are even smaller. Right?


Why do we even need to study anything so unbelievably small? 
How big of an impact could they have on us, the giant humans?
We could ask Mr. Owl, over here, but I had better luck searching the web. 
  1. Nanotechnology could enhance environmental quality and sustainability.
  2. Ultrathin and lightweight organic solar cells with high flexibility

  3. And an extra special application that could help with the trip to Mars: The NASA Biocapsule – made of carbon nanotubes – will be able diagnose and treat astronauts in space!

Tune in tomorrow for the continuing saga of Scale Matters!
Question of The Day:
Can you think of any other applications or uses for the extra small objects we learned about?

Kaltenbrunner, M., White, M.S., Głowacki, E.D., Sekitani, T., Someya, T., Sariciftci, N.S. & Bauer, S. (2012). Ultrathin and lightweight organic solar cells with high flexibility, Nature Communications, 3  770. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1772