Depending where you define the edges, our solar system has a diameter of at least 10 billion kilometers (and arguably more). How can the human mind begin to process such an expanse? We can’t compare it to any meaningful time/distance relationship we’ve experienced–neither a football field nor a long road trip can serve as a reasonable metric–so what do we do?
This extra-long infographic of our solar system, by Information Is Beautiful Studio, uses clever design schemes to scale the unfathomable expanses of planetary systems right within our browsers. Prepare to scroll for a looooong time:
At its core is a waveform that serves as a scaling legend of distance. As the graphic takes us from the Earth to the outer recesses of our solar system, this waveform condenses to help us cover more ground, faster. So in a single image, we can see the relatively tiny distance from Earth to the Moon and the massive expanses from the Earth to the edges of the galactic neighborhood.
Yet at the same time, we’re grounded by another metric so we don’t lose perspective: the Star Trek Enterprise’s minutes away from Earth, traveling at warp 1 (or the speed of light*). In this regard, one might analyze the graphic as a touch overdesigned, giving us the same fundamental data (distance) in a variety of terms. But in this case, when distance is the very nature of the visualization’s problem, I find these overlapping references as crucial mental anchors.
Truly, it’s hard to imagine many smarter approaches to visualizing distance, at least within the confines of a webpage. Maybe, someday, someone will come up with a genius idea that we’ve never imagined to contextualize our place in the 45 billion light-years it would take to reach the edge of the known Universe. But I doubt it. We’re facing an expanse that’s larger than any building block we have. As bleak as it may sound, that expanse always be larger than our brains can process. (Well, that is, unless the Universe eventually contracts through the Big Crunch.)
* Star Trek TNG geeks will recognize that warp 1 is actually a bit faster than the speed of light. But the infographic is referring to the laws built in the classic TV show in which warp 1 equals the speed of light.