Random AsidesScience

The Scale of Things

There are shapes, colors, and patterns everywhere, and I marvel in how the same patterns often exist at vastly different scales.

I have found myself looking at a rockface, admiring the small, swirling, black-and-white folds in metamorphic gneiss or migmatite. Looking out at the wider landscape, I often see the swirls echoed. The thick rock layers composing the mountain are folded over and under much in the same way that the layers in the hand sample sized rock at my feet are folded. The rock has three-inch folds; the mountain has three mile folds, perhaps.

In volcanology I also see patterns. Lava lakes, such as those found on the big island of Hawaii, are in many ways analogs for the entire Earth. At the cool surface of these lakes crusts can form. These crusts are moved around and broken up in ways that are similar to the ways in which Earth’s large tectonic plates are moved around. The crusts on lava lakes are rifted, slammed together, and subducted back into the lake. The scale is much smaller and the pace much faster, but in essence the plate tectonics of these lava lakes is not much different from the plate tectonics of the entire Earth.

Since childhood I have spent a great amount of time in a kayak on rivers. After I learned to read whitewater, I became amazed at what I would see in even the smallest of streams and creeks. Wherever water is flowing, there are similar patterns. Three inch waterfalls look very similar to three foot waterfalls which look similar to three hundred foot waterfalls. The eddies, swirls, and rushing water become more powerful at larger scales, but the basic ways in which water flows– in which it pools and falls and carves out landscapes– are the same. A close-up image of the stream in my backyard does not look so different from a distant shot of the mighty Amazon.

I sometimes spend time in the desert, sand grains sparkling below my feet by day, stars sparkling above my head by night. Clearly, a sand grain is much, much smaller than a star, but in the desert I sometimes feel that they must be the same size. In the winter I see sparkles in snowflakes. In the city I see sparkles in cement. These tiny flakes are like stars at my feet. Are the sparkles at my feet really so different from the distant sparkles of gas giants? I wonder, sometimes, if they are.

What are the connections between the different scales of the universe? Are there connections? Is the very large really that much different from the very small?

The different scales of the universe are not easy to grasp and understand. As a chemist, I find my work often resides in small scales that I cannot easily appreciate. The periodic table and different models for the structure of atoms are poor substitutes for “seeing” what is going on at this scale. Even high-tech tools such as electron mircoscopes and mass spectrometers provide only hazy glimpses into this scale of the universe.

Much of the challenge of my science is trying to simultaneously understand the very small and the very large. I study the chemistry of rocks to try to understand the larger picture: the forces and conditions that shape volcanoes, shape the Earth, shape the solar system, shape the universe. In my work I often try to understand something about the very large from the very small and vice-versa.

And, as a scientist, I wonder: how little do things become? How large do they become? Are quarks and galaxies just the tip of the cosmological iceberg? What mysteries remain below and above, within and without? And what are the connections, if any, between the very largest scales and the very smallest scales? These are all still outstanding questions in science. I don’t know that we’ll ever really have an answer, unless there really is a finite limit to the very small and very large.

I also wonder why the different scales of things fascinate me and fill me with such awe and reverence. I certainly don’t think there’s anything supernatural or paranormal going on. Yet, without needing a pantheon of Gods or even a single God or supernatural being or event to explain anything, I find contemplation of the different scales of the universe somewhat magical. I also find it both unsettling and comforting. Unsettling because I do not understand the meanings and connections between these patterns at different scales. Comforting because there is a sort of simple beauty in observing connections between the very large and the very small. Comforting because I have a sort of faith– yes, faith– in science, and I believe that the scientific method is capable of gradually unravelling these mysteries of scale although they may never fully be unravelled.

I highly recommend spending a few minutes today marveling in the scales of the universe. For that purpose, I recommend this movie from the website “Molecular Expressions.” At this same website, you can also look at microscopic images of beer from around the world as well as of other materials such as cocktails, computer chips, and moonrocks. You can even order merchandise with your favorite microscopic images. Apparently, the cocktail and beer ties are best-sellers.

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The White Russian Tie from “Molecular Expressions”


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. As someone who grew up around creeks, and has watched a particular stretch of creek in his hometown change over the decades (the channels, the sandbars, the trees and thickets), I love your observations about reading water flow.

    The contrasts and similarities of the very great and very small are magnificent, I agree.

  2. Evelyn,

    Very well written. I, too, often get "caught up" thinking about the differing scales of our universe. Carl Sagan's musings on scale in Cosmos often comes to mind.

    Wishing you all the best in the coming year.

    Best regards,


  3. I'd like to praise the entry, but I'm severely ungifted in the eloquence department, so instead I'm going to pick a nit:

    It should be "iceberg", not "iceburg". One is a big chunk of ice floating in water, the other is… I suppose it'd be a town made of ice. :)

  4. Evelyn: speaking of geology, I would love to se you do a scathing blog entry on this .

    I think I have been damaged by studying black holes for so long, because I rarely think about scales (a black holes properties scale with mass, so it doesn't matter how big it is). Maybe it's also because the knowledge is organized in my memory in a way so I can think on different scales. I mean when I think about the large scale structure of the universe, scale is not the important thing, rather the important thing is how the structures were formed from density fluctuations in the early universe and what we can learn about the early universe by looking at the structures and make a computer model that reproduce them. I don't try to relate it to sizes in everyday life, I just think of it as it is.

  5. As someone who's spent many hours painting miniatures and making scenery to put them in, I can understand the ease with which you can take an element from nature (say, a piece of bark, a little branch, a pebble), give them a dab of paint, and transform them in something that fits perfectly in a scene that's about 1/50th of the original size of the object and its surroundings.

    In my case, this has also led me to find fascinating shapes and structures in very plain everyday objects around me, like bottlecaps for example, or even things like ridges and grooves in bottles, cans, packing material, or many a plastic thingy-majig that just happens to have an interesting shape. My only weakness is then collecting all of these and throwing them into a big box alongside similarly odd-shaped things for "some future use some day".

  6. Bjornar, thanks for the correction. If I worried about typos and small grammatical errors, I would never write anything. I write better by just putting many words on paper as I can and then editing them to something reasonable and technically appropriate.

    Iceburg… what a great name for a town!

    Astrogirl, I am planning to write about the Grand Canyon sometime soon. Articles such as that make me so angry! I've actually read the book "The Grand Canyon: A Different View" in a government gift shop on the canyon rim. I can't believe they sell that book there!

    I also plan to tackle other more political issues such as global warming, pollution, river dams, et cetera. However, I want to make sure that I treat these subjects fairly, so I need some time to do more research and thinking first.

    Happy New Year, everyone!

  7. Thank you Evelyn, beautifully written and your word pictures evokes images so vivid that it reminds me anew why I love science so much. Enough to attempt to wax lyrical myself, but I shall spare all you good people that indignity :)

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