On a grand scale: information design and science 29 Aug 2006
24 comments Latest by Sarah Black
A hydrogen atom is only about a ten millionth of a millimeter in diameter, but the proton in the middle is a hundred thousand times smaller, and the electron whizzing around the outside is a thousand times smaller than THAT. The rest of the atom is empty. I tried to picture it, and I couldn’t. So I put together this page — and I still can’t picture it.
Science presents some of the most interesting challenges for information designers. How do you help people grasp sizes, distances, and ratios that are nearly unimaginable?
Some more examples:
Rense.com offers up images of the relative size of planets. This one does a good job of showing the sun is really damn big:
It’s About Time: Make a Timeline [registration required but the top Google link here seems to work] uses a clock metaphor to show 570 million years in one hour (man shows up just in the nick of time). Click for larger version.
The football field (or stadium) is a common metaphor here in the US…
Eternity in the rocks: “If we equate the time lapsed since the Earth formed to a 100-yard football field — that is, if we place the present at our goal line and 4.556 billion years ago at our opponent’s goal line — 2.1 million years ago is only 1.5 inches from our chalk line.”
Atoms, Elements, and Isotopes: “A greatly enlarged atom might look like a marble (the nucleus) inside an empty football stadium (the electron probability cloud).”
Super-size sperm: “If you delicately unwound the whip-like flagellum of a sperm from the fruit fly Drosophila bifurca, it would stretch out 6 centimeters — 20 times as long as the fly-guy that made it. ‘To put that into perspective, if humans made sperm that long and you took a six-foot man and stood him on the goal line of a football field, his sperm would stretch out to the 40-yard line.’”
The “It’s About Time” page mentioned above also features Fields of Time, a history of time laid out like a football field. Click for larger version.
[Note: Stephen Greb, the author of the “It’s About Time” page, seems like a fun professor. He advises taking students to a real field to illustrate the scale: “The concept of the expanse of time between events can sometimes be better shown on a football field, just because it is so much larger than a length of paper. Of course, its also more fun to be outside than in the classroom. Rather than drawing objects or moments of time on a piece of paper, the students can be active members of the time lines themselves.”]