Powers of Ten

Our universe is so vast it is simply mind blowing. The true nature of the size of our universe can be understood by examining powers of ten. We begin with a picnic scene one meter wide viewed from one meter away. Every 10 seconds we will look 10 times further away and our view of the picnic will be 10 times wider. Zoom out to 10^2 meters, the distance a man can run in 10 seconds. Back up even further  to 10^3 meters, the distance a race car can travel in 10 seconds. Now at 10^4, the distance a supersonic airplane can travel in 10 seconds. At only 10^6 do you begin to see the entire sphere of the earth. At 10^7, background stars are so far away that they do not yet appear to move. At 10^13 we see our entire solar system, and at 10^14 our solar system shrinks to one bright point in the distance, and our sun is now merely just one star among the million others that scatter our galaxy. At 10^20, we reach the outskirts of our galaxy and begin to see the spiral shape of the Milky Way. At 10^21 we see the clouds of Magellan and other satellite groups, and now one million light years away at 10^22 we begin to see groups of galaxies. Fast-forward to 10^24, the largest view of the universe that has been discovered by man. At this vantage point in space, galaxies start look like dust. There appears to be more emptiness than matter, but this emptiness is normal, “as the richness of our own neighborhood is the exception” (Powers of Ten). Centuries ago, people considered earth to be astronomically unique. We know now that is incorrect, that earth is no different from the  millions of other habitable planets in our universe. Why is it then, that many people still consider human life the most important thing in the universe? At 10^24 meters away from our picnic scene, when galaxies look like specks of dust littered throughout the universe, you begin to realize how insignificant human life is in comparison to the grand scheme of things. However, many people in contemporary society tend to forget this fact, as their inflated ego has led them to believe that humans are the most important thing out of everything in our vast universe. Knowing just truly large our universe is can be quite humbling, and I believe that is an important fact to be mindful of.

The Observable Universe

2 thoughts on “Powers of Ten”

  1. Wow there is so much more to the number “10” than I ever thought possible. You made some good points here, such as how insignificant human life is, in the grand scheme of things. The more I learn, the more I come to this realization!!


  2. The sense of scale in our universe never ceases to amaze (even for those of us who have studied astronomy for years now!) Also worth remembering that because space is indeed this vast, when we look out at the night sky, we’re also looking back in time. Right now the oldest observed astronomical body is GN-z11 at ~32 billion light years away!


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