Ever wonder how we possibly know how far away stars and galaxies are from the earth? Obviously it involves telescopes and measurements, right? But beyond that, how does our observed data actually translate into light years? How do we know what we know?
This animation by Royal Observatory Greenwich explains the fundamental tools astronomers use to decode data from dots of light—principles like parallax and redshift. And don’t worry, nothing requires a science degree to understand because the video was built upon simple metaphors like light bulbs and fire engines.
But beyond the explanation itself, it’s remarkable how we’ve scaled the smallest of observations around us into an educated view of objects that are millions of lifetimes beyond our grasp. And it’s just as remarkable how astrophysicists can so concisely explain the concepts of the heavens in plain-person speak. Have you ever noticed, whether it’s a Discovery Channel special or a New York Times article, it’s rare that you’ll spot an interview with an astrophysicist that isn’t rich with these metaphors of scale?
Even for the smartest among us, our brains just aren’t quite big enough to conceptualize the true scale of forces working within the universe. So whether it’s through clever animations, scientific notation, or scrolling infographics, we all need the occasional mental crutch to grasp ideas larger than ourselves. Or, put differently, even the largest questions in our known universe asked by the greatest minds on our planet teeter on the clarity of good design. And maybe some bigger telescopes wouldn’t hurt.