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It's full of stars
July 1, 2009 2:06 PM   Subscribe

One of the hardest things for people to understand about the universe is just how big it is. There are three approaches typically used in describing its size. The first, the song, was pioneered by Monty Python (NSFWish, wireframe of naked woman) and then done just as masterfully by the Animaniacs. The second, the zoom method has been featured twice before here on the blue. The third method is the comparison method (skip to 1:30, unless you like looking at a image of the solar system with terrible distorted orbits), yielding some truly beautiful videos (this one found via the fantastic Bad Astronomy blog). These videos go, at most, as far as looking at the local cluster or the Virgo Supercluster. There are two videos that attempt to show the size of the entire universe, one unsuccessfully (although with great music) and one successfully. (Warning, all links except the first one, are to YT videos).

(These links are not YT videos, with the one noted exception)

The last video shows the Sloan Great Wall (although it confuses the entire image with just the wall itself, which is only the largest galaxy filament (large mpg of a filament) that we can see in the sky. These filaments create the large scale structure of the universe, resembling a web or a cotton ball. (YT Video) Once one looks larger than the filaments, one hits the "End of Greatness", where the universe appears homogeneous. (This can be seen, more or less, in the first link.)

Finally, and perhaps the best link of the bunch, more pictures and videos of similar things from the Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics.
posted by Hactar (74 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite

 
The numbers in that "Yakko's Universe" song are so wrong, it's hardly enjoyable.
posted by darksasami at 2:11 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's pretty big, isn't it?
posted by Mister_A at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2009


We're a grain of sand in New Jersey?

So I can start smoking again?
posted by From Bklyn at 2:14 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Space is 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's, but that's just peanuts to space.
posted by Mwongozi at 2:14 PM on July 1, 2009 [31 favorites]


Nice post!

I love Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. And those videos and pictures from the MPIA are stunning.
posted by zarq at 2:15 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


one hits the "End of Greatness"

You're telling me. You try maneuvering a Dragonfly-Class with over-burned thrusters stuck on with glue and hope after an all-rotation party at Laughing Salx's Hovering Hooch Palace. After that *everything* looks homogeneous if you know what I mean.
posted by The Whelk at 2:18 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've seen bigger.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:20 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's only a model.
posted by The Whelk at 2:22 PM on July 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


If you know what I mean
posted by The World Famous at 2:22 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very cool! There's apparently an update to the "one successfully" video, here (widescreen HD - pause it and give it a moment to load a bit before playing).
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:22 PM on July 1, 2009


It's Raining Florence Henderson: "I've seen bigger."

christ, you sound like my... friend's... girlfriend.
posted by shmegegge at 2:26 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Great post. As for the inaccuracies in the Animaniacs song, I think that they can be overlooked in light of the fact that the cartoon, aimed at children, is about how big and mysterious the universe is. With the majority of children's television aimed at weird asexual sex symbols or wacky tweenage drama, I will be happy to one day netflix Animaniacs for the lil' ones.
posted by farishta at 2:27 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, but where does the Vorlon Planet Killer fit into all this?
posted by dammitjim at 2:27 PM on July 1, 2009


Really, Animaniacs (and its accompanying series Pinky And The Brain, Freakazoid! and Histeria) are some of the most grown-up television I've seen in the past decade. Post-modern beyond belief, completely willing to eat its own young for a good pun... Why wait until you have little ones? Get that Netflix queue booted up and move Yakko and sibs to the front of the line, because if you think this is "aimed at children", you have scary-smart kids.
posted by hippybear at 2:37 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


so anyway, this is pretty neat. the whole point of this post is for me to remember how awesome animaniacs was, right?
posted by shmegegge at 2:38 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's only a model.

Yes, but at 1:1 scale. We lost the original.
posted by sourwookie at 2:39 PM on July 1, 2009


So, what are we going to do tonight?
posted by The Whelk at 2:39 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


hippybear: very good point. Rewatching some Animaniacs recently I was amazed (and a little proud) that I appreciated it as a kid. I got chills watching some of Yakko's songs recently, remembering that sense of wonder.
posted by farishta at 2:43 PM on July 1, 2009


It's a small world. But I wouldn't want to have to paint it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:43 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Same thing we do every night, The Welk. Try to take over the universe.
posted by Hactar at 2:44 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's so big that, approximately speaking, it's not full of stars -- it's empty of stars.
posted by grobstein at 2:46 PM on July 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yes, and God made it just for us people of earth. *happy sigh*
posted by longsleeves at 2:47 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is why I can never find anything. We need a smaller, more manageable universe.
posted by orme at 2:51 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Space is big - really big - you just won't believe how vastly, hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 2:52 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


"They're Hactar and The Whelk... Hactar and The Whelk...
One is a genius, the other's insane..."

Oh, wait. it's supposed to rhyme?
posted by hippybear at 2:55 PM on July 1, 2009


Like any member of any space-faring species ever and wherever, I don't like the vast emptiness between interesting parts.
posted by Free word order! at 3:01 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's only a model.

Yes, but at 1:1 scale. We lost the original.


It'd be tidier, but you try folding a map that big.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:04 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course, all of that space looked much more menacing when Goonswarm was in control of it.
posted by thanotopsis at 3:07 PM on July 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


When thinking about VY Canis Majoris, consider that if it were where the sun is, it would extend to the orbit of Uranus.
posted by borkencode at 3:10 PM on July 1, 2009


I made this comment back in 2007 which I reference every now and again when I want to blow someone's mind at work.

It's also a useful frame of reference for when it feels like life is going wrong. I just think of all the things that are causing me problems and I consider their scale when compared to Eta Carinae.

Then I feel mind boggling small and have to go lay down for a while.
posted by quin at 3:10 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, hmm on second thought, that's if the quoted size is the radius, it's more likely it's the diameter. Using it as diameter puts it only at Saturn's orbit.
posted by borkencode at 3:16 PM on July 1, 2009


I found out today that if you take every star in the observable universe and squished them all up together, you'd fill a ball with a radius that's roughly from here to the nearest star. Surprisingly small. Grobstein's right.
posted by edd at 3:17 PM on July 1, 2009


Gosh, Animaniacs was high-brow kid fare? (Although I am always happy when I hear the Brain Song sung to the tune of Camptown Races.)

Can we compare the size of a human to that thing?

So assuming a grain of sand, made up of silicon dioxide, is approximately .01mm^3, and accounting for the fact that atoms are on the order of a few hundred picometers in diameter, an atom would be approximately the size of, I'd estimate, the city of New York, and I'd say one person would be the size of one proton in the nucleus at most.
posted by kldickson at 3:24 PM on July 1, 2009


All this talk of Animaniacs got me thinking about the Jerry Lewis clown, by far my favorite character. But does anyone know what the back story is with that little song of his, that "when the whippoorwill, whippoors in the wind, the wind can whippoor back, oh nice and chubby baby" thing?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:28 PM on July 1, 2009


You mean, to the Alpha Centauri system? That's... let's see, 4 light years away.

So every star in the observableuniverse fills an approximately 300-light-year-cubed sphere.
posted by kldickson at 3:28 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]



Sometimes I think we are hardwired to believe there is a terminus out there. It may have to do with that God thing. But like the God thing, there is a pronounced lack of evidence.
posted by notreally at 3:31 PM on July 1, 2009




Marisa, nobody's ever identified a source for the "nice and chubby baby." The ancient and venerable Cultural Reference Guide to Animaniacs lists it as "more nonsense thought up by our friends in Sherman Oaks." (Don't look too closely at that link, by the way, or you might end up like me.) It definitely has the sound of classic Paul Rugg insanity, though.
posted by darksasami at 3:53 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid, I was super into astronomy. I could recite all sorts of facts and distances, knew all the constellations,and so on. One day athought popped into my 6 year old head. "how far does it all go?" and my stepfather answers by explaining to me the concept of infinity. For whatever reason, this was one of those random childhood moments that immediately crystallizes into a permanent worldview.

This led to me being a pretty smart 18 year old who would nonetheless argue to no end that "the big bang theory" was a load of crap. Luckily someone much smarter than me clued me in to the possibility that there was discrepancy between my firmly held 6-year-old's concept of "space", and whatever everybody else was talking about when discussing the universe.

Still, I still get a bit of white noise in my head when i hear any discussion of the size or age of the universe. But I'm glad that when I first asked that question my stepdad told me about infinity. He could have really messed me up, and told me that "seven days and then he rested" story from the Bible.
posted by billyfleetwood at 3:56 PM on July 1, 2009


[Let's] hope that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.
posted by kldickson at 3:59 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Gee, I never heard of animaniacs till now. They're really well done!
posted by Faze at 4:10 PM on July 1, 2009


Possibly relevant: How do we explore all this shit?
posted by kldickson at 4:14 PM on July 1, 2009


It's that big, and divided in two regions - America, and Not-America.
posted by qvantamon at 4:54 PM on July 1, 2009




The "one successfully" video is steeped in massive significant digits FAIL. It's just not right to claim that something is "940,192,047,764 miles" in diameter based on the fact that its observed radius is given as 0.08 ly.

(Also, you don't need to point out youtube links, the little yellow inline player arrow does that quite nicely.)
posted by Rhomboid at 5:15 PM on July 1, 2009


the little yellow inline player arrow does that quite nicely

The what?? Is that something I need IE or Opera to see??
posted by straight at 5:27 PM on July 1, 2009


The what?? Is that something I need IE or Opera to see??

I'm using Firefox and can see it fine. The arrows appear on the front page and in the thread, but not in Recent Activity. You may need to enable YouTube pop-ups in your Preferences.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:29 PM on July 1, 2009




Simpsons did it.
posted by SilverTail at 7:42 PM on July 1, 2009


Wow, I just learned about hypergiants, galatic filaments, the Sloan Great Wall, Lyman-alpha blobs, and a bunch of other cool shit by following the links in this post. Favorited!

Every time I think I have some kind of handle on how face-meltingly huge the Universe is, something comes along and says "nope, sorry; it's even bigger than that".
posted by ixohoxi at 7:44 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Actually, if you can just BE with it for awhile, it's kinda comforting to grok your insignificance. It empowers you to start just being in the moment, rather than worrying all the time.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:58 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain, but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."
posted by hippybear at 7:58 PM on July 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


being the center of the universe, my perception of the size of everything around me is all messed up.
posted by the aloha at 9:01 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you're ever in NYC, I highly recommend taking in the Virtual Universe tour at the Hayden Planetarium:
The Hayden Planetarium, with ongoing support from NASA, has assembled the world’s largest cosmic atlas, extending from Earth to the greatest distances yet charted by astronomers. Join us on the first Tuesday of each month for a fully interactive tour of the universe that surrounds us—the longest trip you can take while staying in New York.
The fidelity is just gorgeous. What's amazing is that it's all driven in real-time based on whatever the speaker wants to talk about. The position of the point of view can be adjusted by the operator of the console, as well as time. We started at the earth, saw satellites, other planets, the Oort cloud, the local group, and on and on, out to the edge of the universe. It was mind-blowing.

And the craziest thing? The software is all available for free. You can download it here. Available on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and IRIX.
posted by funkiwan at 9:26 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you're ever in NYC, I highly recommend taking in the Virtual Universe tour at the Hayden Planetarium.

And don't miss the other exhibit's at the AMNH's Rose Center for Earth and Space which houses the Hayden Planetarium.
posted by ericb at 9:48 PM on July 1, 2009


I look at all this wonderment and I can't understand how people can't (or just refuse to) believe in God. And then they get mad that you bring it up.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 9:57 PM on July 1, 2009


*exhibits*
posted by ericb at 10:04 PM on July 1, 2009


I look at all this wonderment and I can't understand how people can't (or just refuse to) believe in God. And then they get mad that you bring it up.

Funny. I have precisely the opposite reaction.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:35 PM on July 1, 2009 [14 favorites]


Of what relevance is the sheer size of the universe to the proving that there is -- or is not -- a creator? It is classic non sequitur.

Does a trillion donuts in a billion donut shops prove there is a Great Baker any more than a baker's dozen on the lunch room counter?

Wait--whaat?
posted by Fezzik's Underwear at 11:35 PM on July 1, 2009


With the universe being so big and all, you'd think it would be easy to hide a dead body, but nooo.

I think I've said too much.
posted by double block and bleed at 12:25 AM on July 2, 2009


Dammit, seekerofsplendor, you ruin a perfectly good post about the universe by wangling about various people's imaginary friends. This is an unfortunately common phenomenon - people not being able to imagine the sheer size of the universe and its complexity so they make it easier on their flaccid brains by saying 'oh, well, [imaginary entity] did it' instead of actually investigating the facts.

This has a formal name - an appeal to emotion or complexity or something such as that - but I can't remember the name for it at the moment.

Please brush up on your logical fallacies and then rejoin the conversation.
posted by kldickson at 12:26 AM on July 2, 2009


double block and bleed, try that black hole over there.
posted by kldickson at 12:27 AM on July 2, 2009


Thanks, kldickson.

As for the god thing, I can't conceive of any single entity that could handle creating and managing the vast complexity of the universe and I haven't seen a shred of proof that one exists. So I choose not to believe in god. You apparently do. Good for you! Diversity of thought is a good thing, usually.

I'm off now to take my "dry cleaning" to the nearest black hole...
posted by double block and bleed at 12:34 AM on July 2, 2009


"I look at all this wonderment and I can't understand how people can't (or just refuse to) believe in God. And then they get mad that you bring it up."
While astronomers and physicists show slightly higher belief in God than most scientists we're still a highly atheistic population compared to non-scientists. Make of that what you will.
posted by edd at 12:37 AM on July 2, 2009


Things like this help me to put my lousy aim into perspective.

Given the sheer amount of empty space in the universe, and the relative scarcity of anything else, the likeliness of one object striking another is almost infinitesimally small. So, by virtue of my being able to hit the side of a barn with a thrown baseball nine out of ten times, I'm actually beating some astronomical odds.
posted by Graygorey at 12:42 AM on July 2, 2009


Dammit, seekerofsplendor, you ruin a perfectly good post about the universe by wangling about various people's imaginary friends.

That actually happened much earlier in this thread than seekerofsplendor's arrival.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:50 AM on July 2, 2009


Of course, the observable universe is big. But there's an unknown amount of unobservable universe past that.

And string theory might predict 10500 other universes. And I've even heard the number ee1077 mentioned. This makes the universe unimaginably tiny in comparison.
posted by edd at 12:57 AM on July 2, 2009


seekerofsplendor, kldickson, Fezzik's Underwear, BitterOldPunk, et. al. One more youtube link, one that I didn't post because I didn't want to spark any religious arguments can be found here.

It's a decent take on religion and perspective. While I don't think it's a convincing argument for no god, it's a very good argument angainst any kind of personal god. If I ever switched out of my fundamentalist agnosticism (no, you don't know one way or another, you're just fooling yourself, that goes double for you atheists), I'd go for Vonnegut's "Church of God the Utterly Indifferent." Given our size and the size of the universe, to think that it was made for us is arrogance of the highest degree.
posted by Hactar at 1:00 AM on July 2, 2009


This is also a very pretty video that puts the size of the universe in perspective.
posted by Djinh at 2:49 AM on July 2, 2009


I though this image was a good one. (warning, it's a big file)
posted by empath at 5:18 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


No wonder it took so long for the Galactica to find Earth.
posted by bwg at 7:55 AM on July 2, 2009


"It's a small world after all, it's a small world after all.."
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:17 AM on July 2, 2009


I saw a poster in the DU observatory that was a pretty good illustration of the size of the (known) universe relative to our solar system/galaxy/cluster. I wish I could find a copy of it.

When I look at things like this, I get sad and frustrated and a little angry. Not because it shows how insignificant we are on a universal scale. Not because it proves or disproves the existence of god(s). But because there's so many amazing things out there, so many mysteries out there our science can't even begin to explain--stuff we can't even see or measure!--and I want to know about all of them.

The universe(s), wherever it came from, is cool.
posted by elfgirl at 9:50 AM on July 2, 2009




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