Putting Things in Perspective

Walking from your house to school probably felt like a pretty long distance when you were a little kid, huh?

Once you got a driver’s licence, driving across the state felt like a fairly big road trip.

Then you took your first interstate plane flight, and that four-hour drive started seeming really short.

Those of you lucky enough to have travelled to another continent probably think nothing of three- or four-hour flights within the US. And with good reason: those distances are absolutely insignificant when compared to the vast distances of Earth from anything else in space.

The Moon seems fairly close, right? Our sun is only eight minutes’ travel at the speed of light. Close? Maybe. Think about it relative to this project. The centre of the model solar system is the Northern Maine Museum of Science, where a nearly-fifty-foot Sun is being installed. The Earth, by comparison, is a mile away and about the size of a softball. A long walk to school as a child (about five miles, uphill both ways, in driving blizzards, with worn-out shoes, no lunch money, a bite of gruel for breakfast, and newspapers stuffed into your coat sleeves to keep warm, or at least that’s what my dad tells me…) would be equal to the thickness of one of the hairs on your head relative to that softball. Pluto, the smallest planet and currently furthest from the sun, is 40 miles away and a mere inch in diameter, mounted on the wall of a visitor’s centre in Houlton.

For more fun with perspectives, think about this for a minute:

Avogadro’s number, or 6.022•1023, is commonly known as one mole, much like the number 12 can be referred to as “one dozen.” How big is a mole? Really, really, really big. Like hard-to-imagine big. If you spread out a mole of grains of sand over the entire surface of the US, it would cover the whole of the country to a depth of three inches. A mole of US dollars, evenly distributed, would be enough to give every one of the more than six billion living men, women, and children on Earth a fortune (disregarding the obviously inevitable inflation that would result from the sudden appearance of that much money) of over one trillion dollars, or more than ten times the peak net worth of Bill Gates.

If that seems unimaginably large, allow me to make your brain hurt just a little more, and then I’ll stop.

Consider the googol, the number for which the search engine was named, a number equal to 10100. A googol is roughly (by which I mean “approximate to within a few tenths of an order of magnitude” - the fact that the US federal budget deficit is something like six trillion dollars give or take a few hundred billion doesn’t diminish the fact that a hundred billion dollars is still an enormous number in and of itself) a mole raised to the fourth power.

That’s a mole…of moles…of moles…of moles. And even that isn’t quite a googol. The number of elementary atomic particles (protons, electrons, neutrons) in the known universe is estimated to be about 1085. That means that our known universe would have to be duplicated one thousand million million times to account for one googol of elementary atomic particles, which are about as small as it gets unless you want to get into serious quantum physics.

And then there’s 10googol, or a googolplex


posted by Chris on 08 June 2003 at 1620 in sci-tech


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