Are the grills on pickups big enough for you yet? Truck sellers have always tried to have impressive front ends on them to give them some credibility. You can see that in these photographs of older trucks.
Good looking trucks, right? But lately it seems to have got out of hand, as if the size of the grill has become the point rather than just part of the marketing. What need is being served by these urban tanks? They used to jack trucks up to get the grills this high, but now they don’t have to any more. They come that way, complete with a built-in ladder to get into the thing.
We live on a rocky ball about 12,750 kilometers through and 40,050 kilometers around its widest diameter. It has a mass of about six quadrillion megatonnes, which is so ridiculously large compared to things we’re used to that it doesn’t really mean anything to us. Our size compared to Earth’s size is roughly equivalent to the size of viruses compared to us.
And it doesn’t imply that humans are merely an unimportant example of a repeating theme. After all, why is our size one of the levels? We could just as easily be included with all of life to fall between the very small and the very large. As in – subatomic particles – living things – planets and stars. But that’s another analogy that shouldn’t be pushed too hard.
We choose humans as a level because we’re human. We tend to look at things relative to what we’re used to, so we don’t think twice about our size being one of the steps on the ladder. Besides, it was necessary to use something familiar as a point of reference in such a wide array of dimensions.
The dimensions of the physical universe are measured by such huge numbers, both hugely big and hugely small, that they don’t convey much meaning on their own. The very large is measured in billions of light years. Light years are trillions of kilometers each. Even a single kilometer is big compared to us. The small is measured in fractions of meters, changing the numbers from positive to negative right about our size. The very smallest things are such small decimals of a meter that we don’t write them out in full, using special mathematical shorthand instead.
In all that vastness, all that range of realities and possibilities, what is most amazing is that part of it is conscious. A narrow band in the middle has produced something that can look out and try to understand the whole thing.
I think we can justify being a little self-centered.
Levon Biss is a successful commercial photographer. His work has been used in advertising, on magazines and in a book about soccer. Now he has an exhibition of his images of insects, showing the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s insect collection in stunning detail. The exhibition runs from May 27 to October 30, 2016, and it’s called Microsculpture. The prints range in size up to three meters, each an image of a tiny insect captured down to the finest detail.
These are not just snapshots of pretty bugs. Each image takes about three weeks to complete. He shoots each insect in sections — about thirty on average — and then compiles the shots into a single, complete image. In all, he shoots 8,000 to 10,000 photographs of each bug, then combines the best parts of them into the final product. He needs to get the lighting and the focus just right for each tiny part, so the whole image can be perfectly lighted and focused. Since the depth of field is so small with a microscopic lens, he can only move the camera ten microns between shots. That’s not much more than a tenth of the width of a human hair.
If you want to see the detailed originals of these small samples, follow the links to Levon Biss’s Microsculpture website. There you can see the light reflecting off the individual cells of compound eyes, and count the hairs on little buggy legs. There’s also a video that shows how he did it.
What is the world’s largest living organism? Could it be the blue whale? It’s certainly a big animal, the largest to ever live on Earth. They grow to an average length of twenty-five meters and weight of 110 tonnes. The biggest blue whale ever measured was a female of twenty-nine meters and 158 tonnes. They have hearts the size of a small car, weighing 450 kilograms. They need a big heart to move their six or seven tonnes of blood. Blue whales are also the world’s loudest animals. If you’ve ever heard a big jet taking off, that’s quiet compared to the call of a blue whale. They can be heard hundreds, even thousands of kilometers away in the ocean. Blue whales are loud and they’re big, but they’re not the biggest living organism.
Could it be the giant sequoia tree? Although it’s not the world’s tallest tree – the redwood, Douglas fir and Australian mountain gum tree all have taller specimens – the giant sequoia is thicker. While none of the others exceeds seven meters in diameter, the sequoia can exceed ten. Even so, it’s beaten out by a Mexican cypress tree which reaches eleven meters in diameter. But that tree is less than half the height. All in all the sequoia is the biggest. The giant sequoia is much larger than the blue whale. It’s over three times the length and almost ten times the weight. Fortunately it only makes normal tree noises. And it’s not the largest organism.
CC-BY – the Moose from USA
CC-BY – Zach Dischner
There’s another tree which is bigger. We just have to redefine what we mean by “tree.” An aspen grove might look like a collection of trees, but it’s really a collection of stems growing from a single plant. Genetic samples show that all the aspens are identical clones arising from a single organism. The grove is the tree. A quaking aspen in Utah has formed a grove covering eighty hectares (200 acres) and scientists calculate that the organism, mostly underground, weighs six thousand tonnes. That’s considerably heavier than even a giant sequoia. But the aspen grove is still not the largest organism.
CC-BY-SA – Lord Mayonnaise
The largest living organism ever found is neither a plant nor an animal. It’s a fungus. It’s affectionately known as the humongous fungus. A specimen found in Oregon covers almost ten square kilometers, is estimated to be as much as 8,500 years old and could weigh over ten thousand tonnes. That’s almost a hundred blue whales. Its visible parts are the mushrooms, commonly called honey mushrooms. As with the aspen, most of it is underground.
With the world’s largest living organism, there’s more than meets the eye.
How big is the biggest* star? I’m sure most people, once they learn that stars come in different sizes, will ask themselves that question. The answer, of course, is provisional. According to calculations, the biggest a star can be before the force of its radiation overcomes the strength of its gravity is 150 solar masses. (Stars are measured as multiples of our Sun.) At that size they radiate so fiercely that they blow away mass faster than they can accumulate it. However, in theory the conditions were right shortly after the Big Bang for the formation of stars of 300 solar masses. So, let’s say that the biggest star should be 150 – 300 solar masses.
Image credit – Urhixidor – Public Domain
That brings us naturally to the question of how small the smallest star can be. Again, we have to set the criteria. Should a star be something that glows by its own light, or should we be more strict? I prefer the requirement that a star must be heated by hydrogen fusion, as a distinct cut-off. Otherwise, really big planets heated to glowing by intense gravitational compression might be called stars, and the line would be blurred. At 93 times the mass of Jupiter, AB Doradus C is the smallest known star by that criterion. The theoretical lower limit is 75 Jupiters. Below that is the blurry area occupied by objects called brown dwarfs. Another blurry line at about 13 Jupiter masses separates brown dwarfs from gas giants like Jupiter. It would take over a thousand Jupiters to make our Sun.