Monday, March 12, 2012

Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Have you seen this cool new NASA "astronomy picture of the day?" It allows you to move up and down through the dimensions of the known universe - level by level, scale by scale.

Sadly, not included in the graphic.
Source: Namco / PlayStation
Building on an earlier version released in 2010, the Huang twins (Mike & Cary) have really outdone themselves this time. Now fully equipped with smooth transitions, helpful fact boxes, and awestruck ambient music, the graphic allows viewers to move through 62 orders of magnitude  (a "1" followed by 62 zeroes, or 100 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion!) to explore phenomena ranging from the immense observable universe, down through galaxies, asteroids, animals, cells, atoms, and particles, to the infinitesimally tiny Planck constant. The experience feels somewhat like playing the popular "stuff-collecting" game Katamari Damacy

Browsing the site, I zoomed into the realm where we chemists usually find ourselves, somewhere between 1 micrometer (10-6 m, one micron, where the larger viruses hang out) down to around a femtometer (10-15 m, about the size of a single proton). Honestly, that's a huge zone to play around in, roughly nine orders of magnitude. Put in human terms, the larger viruses are to protons what Jupiter and Saturn are to us! 

Encouraged by the classic Feynman lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," in which the Nobel-winning theoretical physicist lays down the foundation for nanotech, I pushed further down the size scale, past various flavors of quarks, down to the neutrino, still our smallest detectable particle at (about) 1 yoctometer (10-24 m).

Hey, who turned off the universe?
"Nothing down here but us strings..."
Then...nothing! For the next ten orders of magnitude, down to quantum foams and strings, there was just empty space. So, what's down there? The subconscious? The Higgs boson? Tesseracts?

Honestly, I don't know enough quantum physics to tell you. If any of my readers are better versed in the subject, please write in. To parrot Feynman, 1010 seems like entirely too much room to have nothing in it.

Update (5/5/12, 11:00AM) - A reader alerted me to an old xkcd comic that covers much of the same ground...


  1. Midichlorians, that's what's down there.

  2. " wonder the kid had so many...they're literally only a yoctometer big!"

  3. That figure for the neutrino is probably just an upper limit. As far as I know, there is no evidence that leptons (electrons, neutrinos, etc.) have any size at all (i.e., so far they behave as ideal point particles).

  4. Midi-chlorian counts were linked to potential in the Force, ranging from normal Human levels of 2,500 per cell to the much higher levels of Jedi. The highest known midi-chlorian count belonged to the Jedi Anakin Skywalker (over 20,000 per cell), who was believed to have been conceived by the midi-chlorians!

  5. Those Jedi must have some STRONG analytical equipment!