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

Cool Stuff Sunday 5

Another beautiful New Mexican Sunday has come and is spoiling me with its warmth and sunshine. These are the types of days that I need to appreciate and remember if I end up participating in the Mars Analog Food Study. I’ll just have memories of the sun’s warmth and the fresh air’s breeze. So enjoy the post and the content I’ve compiled, but then get off of the internet and go outside! And not just because there might be candy hidden.

Before you check out the videos and links, perhaps you can take a minutes to sign a petition to raise the allotment of tax money to increase NASA’s funding?

This guy is not quite as cuddly as the Easter Bunny
A very cool NPR story that I heard on the radio about using music to teach math
 and fractions!. Creative education that works is so wonderful!
A really creative fix that may allow us to utilize brown seaweed for biofuel! I wouldn’t
mind going to the coast and helping with that research!
I’m afraid some of the sound clip links may not be functioning, but an interesting article nevertheless
about how things sound on different planets! The thunder clips are my favorite!

I came across this video series (The Feynman Series) which serves as a compliment to the Sagan Series. Richard Feynman is another notable scientific communicator. This Nobel Prize co-winner was invaluable to the field of physics and made contributions both within his research and passion for teaching and popularizing the subject. What I really love about these series of videos is that they serve as such unique tools for inspiring interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). I want to soak up as many of these as possible so I can understand what I love about them most and try and use that to inspire my own attempts. I’ve found both more visual and awe-inspiring videos, such as the one above, and more silly attempts:

Another cool TED talk (can you tell I’m border-line obsessed with these?) by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. She talks about the notion of having your ‘greatest achievement’ accomplished and behind you, as well as the concept of ‘being’ a genius vs. ‘having’ genius. 
Question of The Day:
What are you going to do OUTSIDE this week?