Is it bigger than a … ?

The first time I discovered I could zoom in and out on a web-based map, I thought it was really cool. By now I take the ability for granted, and I can’t remember the last time I used a paper map except when on the road. (And someday I’m sure I’ll have a tablet of some sort so that even on the road I can use web-based maps.)

It’s pretty impressive that we can easily go from the scale of the entire country down to individual city blocks. But I looked at a website this evening that goes way, way bigger and way, way smaller.

It’s not a map, by any means, just a representative sample of objects of different sizes. But by being able to compare similarly sized objects, and then zoom in and out to much bigger and much smaller objects, you get a better feel for the relative size of things.

The Scale of the Universe 2 goes all the way up to the size of the universe (of course!) and down to a tiny unit of length called the planck, which is 0.000000000016 yoctometers. If you never heard of a yoctometer before, don’t feel bad – I hadn’t either. It is really, really small – but it’s huge compared to a planck.

I was surprised to find out just how small a particle of clay is. (I’m not sure I even realized that there was such a thing. Clay doesn’t feel like it’s made up of particles.) It’s not only smaller than a red blood cell, it’s smaller than an X chromosome. But it’s slightly larger than a Y chromosome. (I also didn’t know how much bigger X chromosomes are than Y chromosomes.)

Zooming much, much further in, you reach quarks, which I learned come in six different types – and sizes. Oddly enough (to someone like my with little knowledge of physics at the subatomic level), the ones with the most mass are the smallest. The scale keeps on going, though, getting smaller and smaller until I wondered could possibly be at the end. (There are actually two items – I can’t call them objects – estimated to be smaller than the planck.)

Zooming out instead of in, I found other interesting comparisons. A redwood is half again as tall, for example, as a Boeing 747 is long. A Saturn V rocket is just a tiny bit taller than a football field is long (if you include end zones).

From one end to the other, California is slightly larger than Italy. And more surprisingly – since I had never considered such a comparison before – that length is about the same as the diameter of Pluto’s moon Charon.

I knew that our sun was considered a medium-sized star. But zooming in and out gives a much clearer sense of just what a range in size there is from the smallest stars to the largest. And then you still have to keep zooming out further and further, past the scale of nebulae, then galaxies, then clusters, to reach the estimated size of the universe.

If you have a scroll wheel on your mouse, you can zoom in and out fast enough to get a feel for the immense scale from biggest to smallest. (You can zoom in and out by clicking on different sized objects, or the scroll bar at the bottom. That’s better for looking at the details, but gives less of a sense of the enormous changes in scale.)

There was a discussion on the WORLD Community blog today about benefits (and problems) of using computers in the classroom. This application is a good example of how computer technology can enhance education.

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