A ruler for all

Measuring the smallest and largest forces in the universe.

If you have ever taken a drafting class, you will have encountered a curious object known as the architect’s scale. Shaped like a Toblerone, this three-sized ruler with it’s myriad markings is totally perplexing upon first glance. Once you unlock the secret of how it works, it opens up doors to a vast number of different sized worlds. With this magic key, you can create a perfect little chair the size of your thumbnail, or conversely, blow up stamp-sized portraits into images the width of an opera house. But what if you find yourself drawn to exploring even bigger worlds?

Cosmic measuring tapes

The universe is a big place. It’s so huge that we have trouble grasping the concept of its scale, much as a young child views time. For a five year old, a a year can seem like a nebulous and grand notion. Similarly for an adult, a light-year (just under ten trillion kilometres, the distance light travels in a year) can be both a vague and awesome idea because it is so much larger than our everyday existence. How do we go about measuring something so far beyond our own world view? Can we create rulers that stretch to the edges of the universe? The branch of the space industry known as physical space sciences is faced with that particular task.

The convenient unit of measurement for local interplanetary distances is the Astronomical Unit (AU). One AU represents the average distance from the Earth to the Sun. Since that hot yellow ball in the sky is in our everyday visual and tactile human experience (if you don’t live somewhere too foggy), it’s easy for us to imagine our solar system in relationship to this unit. The distance to the edge of our solar system is approximately 100,000 AU. When we realize that Mars is a mere half AU away from us, the trip starts to seem pretty manageable. If the longer 100,000 AU journey seems daunting, you may be relieved to discover that distance is equivalent to the more reasonable-sounding 1.5 light-years.  This is positively tiny compared to the known edge of the universe, 13.75 billion light-years away. What kind of measuring tape could possibly take us there?

The perfectly poised human

The European Space Agency’s Planck space telescope has been reaching the incomprehensible distance of 13.75 billion light-years by measuring cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang that has since come to us. While this very old, weak, cool bath of light appears to be spread across the sky with an even intensity, there are in fact miniscule variations in temperature that exist here and there. Interestingly, it is these very small-scale “seeds” or “clots” of information that are the key to our vision of the larger-scale expanding universe.

Each tiny variation in temperature is a reflection of the ancient time when matter and radiation were in a relationship, representing the seeds of our current galaxies and galaxy clusters. It takes the ability to measure the very small (one millionth of a degree in temperature change) to understand the vastly large. In fact, the Planck scale itself refers to a very large energy scale and a very small size scale. When we see it in this way, humans no longer seemed dwarfed by the universe, but are poised elegantly somewhere in the middle of the cosmic scale.

A snake for Einstein

Joel R. Primack, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, would  appear to agree with this. In his essay Cosmology and Culture, he places humans right in the centre of one of the oldest visual symbols that expresses the comic cycle: the uroboros.  This image, which is essentially a circle of a snake swallowing its tail, is referenced here with the size scales of the universe (sixty orders of magnitude) circling it like the hours on a clock face. At 12 o’clock, the snake swallows it’s tail, where we believe gravity to link the smallest forces with the largest galactic events. Directly opposite, at the 6 o’clock position, is the figure of a human, at the centre size of all scales.

The symbol is not only an elegant link between culture and science. Dr Primack notes how it helps us to see ourselves and the universe from a multitude of perspectives: “People asked to visualize ‘the universe’ will far more often think of the largest thing they know of than the smallest. Few realize that the universe exists on all scales, everywhere, all the time. This is a truly extravagant thought. Largeness is by no means the most important characteristic of the universe.”

This alchemical “as above, so below” cosmic understanding can also be put to work on a practical level. Dr Primack points out how the uroboros symbol can be used as a model to solve the earth’s biggest consumption problems, alluding to Einstein’s famous quote that, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” He continues: “Mathematically meaningful patterns of the universe – for example, the transition from cosmic inflation to expansion – may exist on a human scale too. Applying them to large-scale human problems could burst us out of the narrow perspective within which these problems have seemed intractable. This narrow perspective justifies its failures with a trendy cynicism that threatens to doom us. In the larger perspective may lie Einstein’s kind of solution.”

In other words, if we want to put an end to excessive consumerism, poverty, and unfair distribution of energy and resources, we need to start thinking beyond our own human scale. Large-scale problems require very big – or very small – mind shifts.

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