The vastness of the Universe and the emptiness of the Innerverse

Matthew Cobb sent me this lovely video showing a camera pulling out from a view of a person at the Google complex to the limits of the Universe, and then reversing that. But it goes even farther in, going into the person on ever-smaller scales winding up with a quark.  This should be a cause for awe, or, if you’re an accommodationist, “spirituality.” The YouTubes notes are below:

App for “Cosmic Eye”
This movie was generated using the iOS App “Cosmic Eye”, written by Danail Obreschkow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research at the University of Western Australia. Cosmic Eye drew inspiration from a progression of increasingly accurate graphical representations of the scales of our Universe, including the classical essay “Cosmic View” (1957), the short movie “Cosmic Zoom” (1968), directed by Eva Szasz, and “Powers of Ten” (1977), directed by Charles and Ray Eames. Where possible, it displays real photographs obtained with modern objectives, telescopes, and microscopes. Other views are phenomenal renderings of state-of-the-art computer models. All scientists and sources have given permission and are fully credited in the app.


  1. BobTerrace
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m dizzy now.

  2. Janet
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Just think – most of the people who have ever lived had no idea about the vastness or about the tiny-ness of our universe. We are very privileged to have this awareness and be able to experience this awe.

    • Posted February 1, 2017 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      God knows. And he really cares too. Cause he wrote a book about it. /sarcasm

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        In which he told us that bats are birds! And witches exist! And snakes talk! So do donkeys! And zombies, don’t forget the zombies!

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 12:10 am | Permalink

      I find the awe also comes from the fact that we humans can have an understanding of the universe over so many orders of magnitude.
      Science is awesome.

  3. karaktur
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    I recently read, and if I correctly remember, someone asked Feynman if all scientific knowledge were to be lost, what single statment would he want preserved. His answer was that everything is made of atoms. Today it would be particles?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      particles. But only if you look at them. 😉

      • Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        Fields, actually — or, more descriptively, waves in fields.

        And we only “anthropically” observe single individual interactions between fields, particular mutually-interacting wave crests. Yet most physicists would tell you that all the interactions happen; it’s just that the subsequent causal chains are limited. The end result is popularly described as “Many Worlds.”

        So the electron field has a wave that propagates through both slits in the famous experiment, but when the wave of the bits of the detector on the right interact with the incoming field, they can’t simultaneously interact with the ones on the left (and vice-versa). Those divergences continue to propagate through time such that there would be two (many more, actually, but ignore that) scientists looking at very similar apparatuses with different recorded results, and each scientist can rightfully trace her history back to the same singular scientist before the start of the experiment. And that’s because the scientist, too, is an assemblage of entangled waves in the associated fields….



    • Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Well, “atom” in the sense of “little bits of stuff” still works.

      (The original Greek means “not to be cut”, so we have some flexibility.)

  4. Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    The Museum of Natural History in New York has a permanent exhibit that takes you from the visible universe to subatomic particles as you wind down a long ramp. Each stop compares the size of the object to the next/previous stop. I love it, my kids love it and it is amazing!

  5. Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry. You say “This should be a cause for awe, or, if you’re an accommodationist, ‘spirituality.'”

    While the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” have supernatural connotations for many, they are widely used to refer to the domain of ultimate existential concerns that eventually engage many of us, accommodationist or not. Our approach to these concerns need have nothing to do with the supernatural, or with accommodating traditional religions as separate ways of knowing. Instead, the realization that we’re completely at one with physical reality can ground a naturalistic, non-dualist spirituality, one that generates wonder, compassion, gratitude, and acceptance.

    Harris opts for the naturalization of spirituality in the context of seeking out self-transcendent experiences, see

    • Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I do understand how many people interpret the words. The reason I tend to shy away from them is that they’re often used by accommodationist to imply that scientists aren’t so far from believers after all: as if we have some sort of weakness for the numinous. That, for instance, is how the unctuous Elaine Ecklund uses them in her attempt to show that scientists have a kinship with religionists. I’m perfectly down with using “spirituality” in the sense you do; it’s just that others tend to see the word in other ways, and it can become confusing. I prefer “awe” or “wonder”, which can’t so easily be hijacked by believers.

      • Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I totally take your point. To avoid such confusion I always start by adverting to *naturalistic* spirituality. Awe and wonder are great, referring to the experiential side of things, but there’s also the engagement with existential questions of meaning and purpose (“ultimate concerns”) that spirituality, traditionally conceived, often encompasses. And I don’t want to concede that territory to supernaturalism. Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality shows beautifully why we needn’t.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

          I absolutely accept that explanation; but in discussion with believers I have found time and again that if I use the term “spiritualism” this is taken by them as meaning that I accept the existence of (non-material) “spirits”. In the end I think it is easier and less ambiguous to avoid the term altogether.

  6. Posted February 1, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Very nice. Carl Sagan did a similar presentation for a talk that I hosted at Reed College in about 1970. As I recall, it was done with slides instead of film, with each slide representing an order of magnitude step from the previous one.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Left me woozy. Maybe that vid should come with a Dramamine patch.

  8. Derek Freyberg
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    I recall a book did this (maybe 50 years ago, I think I saw it when I was a teenager), with photos and/or drawings; going up in scale 10-fold at each step, with illustrations of things that fit that scale. Wish I could remember the name.

    • Gary Yane
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      The book is called “POWERS of TEN” (published by Scientific American) by Phylis and Philip Morrison. Based on the film of the same name by The Office of Charles an Ray Eames

      • Bent Backenforth
        Posted February 2, 2017 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        I recall seeing the short video of this in the children’s museum in Toronto a long, long time ago. Subsequently bought the Powers of Ten book as part of a Scientific American book series; still have it. Nice to see an updated version of the mind-blowing sequence.

  9. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Very nice. I noticed it stopped short of showing the multiverse, and on the opposite end of the scale it did not show strings.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, on the small end it stopped about 20 orders of magnitude above the Planck scale.

      • BobTerrace
        Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

        So you can’t weigh much on the Planck scale.

  10. Kevin
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Not one iota of that video could be deduced from the sum of all organized religions.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      +1. Or maybe +10. Or +100. Or…

  11. nwalsh
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful awe inspiring journey and not a F’n republican to be seen.

  12. rickflick
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Well beyond the world of cabbages and kings.

  13. Tom Czarny
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    The original iteration of the video Jerry posted, Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” from 1968 along with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (also in 1968) were pivotable moments in my life, cattle prods to a comfortable suburban life that directed me down an academic and intellectual path I had not considered up to that point. Never looked back and have loved every instant of it.

  14. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 1, 2017 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    The bit about “atomic emptiness” triggered one of my pet peeves. If fields count as empty space, what do they imagine the non-empty parts of atoms are made of?

    • Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Strictly speaking there’s a gravitational field everywhere, but that would be a bit tedious.

      • Posted February 2, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

        The Higgs field is everywhere too, at least according to the Standard Model.

  15. Posted February 1, 2017 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    To me, this does the opposite to making me feel small. It shifts me outside of my smallness, into the universe. It’s a privilege to be able to comprehend our world, to some degree.

  16. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    That’s one hell of a zoom lens!


  17. Michael
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    Truly awe inducing! However I have to say that inner space is far from an empty void due to quantum uncertainty/fluctuations. For example the proton is not in reality an object that consists of three bound quarks, rather it consists of a sea of virtual quarks and antiquarks and gluons. There is an excess of three on she’ll quarks, which is why for pedagogical expedience we are told that protons/neutrons are composed of three quarks.

  18. Michael
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Typo: substitute she’ll for shell

  19. David Harper
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    It’s good to see the “Powers of Ten” idea being updated so well.

    Science can do the same kind of thing with time. Physicists can apply the laws of nature, as currently understood, back to around 10**(-43) seconds after the Big Bang, which is quite astounding. In the other direction, a rather good review paper was published back in 1997 by a couple of physicists at the University of Michigan which looked at the long-term fate of the universe.

    Among their conclusions, based on then-current knowledge, was that all of the stars in the universe would eventually die around 10**14 years from now, and no new stars would be born because all the hydrogen would have been used up by then. On timescales around 10**37 years, proton decay (predicted by Grand Unified Theory) would lead to “normal” matter decaying into electrons and photons, whilst the black holes at the centres of galaxies would evaporate via Hawking radiation on a timescale of about 10**83 years.

    Reference: Adams, F.C. and Laughlin, G. (1997) “A dying universe: the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical objects” Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 69 (2), 337-372

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure proton decay ever qualified as “then-current knowledge”. In 1997 it was speculative; by now it’s been pretty much ruled out experimentally. People have been looking for it and not finding it for upwards of 30 years. Nor has the LHC turned up any hints of physics beyond the Standard Model (in which protons are stable).

      • David Harper
        Posted February 3, 2017 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the update. I’m relieved to hear that my protons will still be around in 10**37 years 😉

  20. aljones909
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    In a similar vein – but time rather than space. 1000 years of European history. Keep a careful eye on Germany.


    • aljones909
      Posted February 2, 2017 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Don’t know what WordPress did with the link.
      It’s on youtube watch?v=vLxzSQEF71g

  21. Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting these fascinating images! After a small distance, let me daresay one lightyear on the outward voyage and one micrometer in the opposite direction, my imagination stops accompanying me. But I stay onboard, being encouraged by awe.

  22. jardino
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks from me too.

    A couple of years ago, I came across a similar slide-show that started at the limits of the known Universe and drilled all the way down to Earth and the region around the Middle East, to show just how petty and insignificant the Abrahamic religions are. Unfortunately, I can no longer find it. Does anyone here have a pointer to it?


  23. Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I think what is also astonishing to think about is not just the cosmos within and without us, but also *a bunch of hairless apes figured that stuff out about it*! *That’s* cool too.

    My first lesson in this came from my father when I was around 6 or so – I had read a child’s book of astronomy and we made a model of the solar system in the basement. I (naively) asked to include Proxima Centauri, as the nearest star, at the edge of the model. Needless to say we didn’t do that. 😉

  24. Posted February 2, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    The film, and this post’s title, both fail to acknowledge the emptyness that also characterizes the universe as a whole. As Lawrence Krauss mentions in his lectures, all normal matter is mere cosmic pollution. The universe as a whole would continue much as before if all normal matter were to vanish. The not-tenuous-enough purple web in the fully zoomed out view is a representation of dark matter, which doesn’t do much of anything except gravitate. Most of our universe is actually dark energy. So on the largest scales the universe should be represented by a black screen!

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      I do find it neat how there is a sense in which both (for example) Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes and Leibniz on the one hand and Democritus, Newton, etc. on the other hand were right!

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