A Matter of Scale, pt. 1

To see beyond ourselves is simply a matter of scale.

I have already addressed this proposition (in slightly different terms) but in the wake of Bastille Day here, in Paris, I feel the need to return to it. Suffice it to say, given my readings recently and the imminence of my physical return to Canada, the topic has been much on my mind.

To begin this return, then, I feel the need to take a bypath into the world of astronomy, especially given the exciting news of the New Horizons probe passing Pluto.

When we think of space, we generally think of a black emptiness, speckled with the faint light of stars. Looking at the recent photos of Pluto gives a similar impression.1

Here, we see a (relatively) tiny chunk of rock floating in the far-away nothingness of outer space. Given the type of photo, we don’t see stars in the background, or any other celestial features: all we see is the lonely dwarf planet. The feeling it inspires in me is reminiscent of that inspired by the “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken by Voyager 1, looking back at planet Earth, a speck nearly lost on the grainy canvas of the universe.2

As Carl Sagan so eloquently wrote:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.3

Against such a backdrop, it is hard not to see the insignificance of all humanity’s striving and scheming and searching. As Voyager1 and New Horizons recede further and further away from us, so to, from such a distant vantage, do our troubles recede as well. As I have advocated for a stepping outside of ourselves, to look through Voyager 1′s eyes is the most outside we, as a species, have gotten. To be preciseVoyager 1 has traveled 131.83 AU or 1.972×10^10^ km (19,720,000,000 km OR nineteen billion seven hundred and twenty million kilometers OR 179,700,000,000 football fields) away from the Earth. For another reference point, “Pale Blue Dot” was taken from a paltry distance of six billion kilometers away. And for another, the total distance Voyager 1 has traveled is only 0.002 of a light year (one two-thousandth of a light year), which means, as immense as the distance is that Voyager 1 has traveled already, to travel a single light year will take it another 74,000 years. Andromeda, the next closest galaxy to the Milky Way is two million light years away from us. Long, short, the universe is a big place.

But what if we look at space differently? What if, rather than focusing on the blackness, we look instead for the light? Rather than despair at the emptiness of out there, we continue to step further and further until we see just how full and beautiful the universe is?4

For we tiny creatures, even stepping into the outdoors of our own planet can be an ordealNew Horizons (which is approximately the size of a grand piano) has been flying through our solar system for nine years at a speed of roughly four kilometers per second. Between Jupiter and Pluto, a duration of seven years, New Horizons spent most of that time hibernating, because there was hardly anything to see in the gap. Voyager 1, which has passed beyond the edge of our solar system, is the first spacecraft to have entered the “interstellar medium,” and is, therefore, even more isolated than New Horizons.

But if we zoom out far enough, if we increase the size of our frame, the distances appear to shrink. In the photo above, a 2000 pixel-wide image of the Perseus Cluster, a patient viewer could easily count over a hundred galaxies, which each, themselves, contain billions upon billions of stars. We just need to think big. Really big.

And we need to use different eyes. What we, with human eyes and regular telescopes, see as emptiness, with a microwave antenna we can see is anything but.5

We see only a fraction of what is out there. The Cosmic Microwave Background, discovered in 1965, permeates space. In the image above, the universe is far from cold and empty, but rather, full of heat and light, and on at least one planet, full of life.

There is not room here to return to the main road from this prolonged digression, so I will have to continue the discussion in the next post. But I will leave you, my reader, with these thoughts and these images, and the repeated injunction to step outside, even if outside simply means out your front door.


  1. NASA. “New Horizons Spacecraft Displays Pluto’s Big Heart.” July 14, 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/new-horizons-spacecraft-displays-pluto-s-big-heart-0

  2. NASA. “Solar System Portrait - Earth as ‘Pale Blue Dot’” June 6, 1990. https://www.visibleearth.nasa.gov/images/52392/solar-system-portrait-earth-as-pale-blue-dot?size=all

  3. Sagan, Carl. *Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. *New York: Ballantine Books, 1994. Print. 

  4. esiegel. “Galaxy, Galaxy on the Wall…” ScienceBlogs. May 24, 2010. http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2010/05/24/galaxy-galaxy-on-the-wall/

  5. Wikipedia. “Cosmic Microwave Background.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_microwave_background#/media/File:Ilc_9yr_moll4096.png

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