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Columnists

Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills

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Funny creatures, humans: regardless of our relative insignificance, we routinely imagine ourselves the centre of the universe and act accordingly. Personally, I blame the lack of definitive proof that there are other, more advanced, life-forms out there in the murky vastnesses of space. Also, there's that belief that prevails in many Christian circles that the human species is uniquely beloved of God and that, as his trusted enforcers, we can treat the Cosmos pretty much as we like. Of course, we could argue until the nuns come home about our place in the spiritual hierarchy of universe (my belief is that, if pushed, God would admit to a preference for Klingons over humans). However, thanks to a beautifully conceived website called The Scale of the Universe (scaleofuniverse.com) our physical place in the firmament is now a whole lot easier to determine. Click the start button and, backed by ethereal musical, our journey begins. On the opening screen we find some objects that share our human scale, including a beach ball and a dodo. Brushing aside the fact that it's difficult to compare oneself with a species that no longer exists, we dive into the well of things that are smaller than us. Basketballs and rulers give way to humming birds and matchsticks. We push on, past ants and mist droplets, strands of DNA and Gamma ray wavelengths smaller than helium atoms. But yet there is more, even as we pass a sign admitting 'Lengths shorter than this are not confirmed'. The 'Range of the Weak Force', Up Quarks and Down Quarks (both of which dwarf Top Quarks of course) and finally, right at the bottom of the well and measuring less than 0.0000000001 yoctometres, come Quantum foam, string - presumably we're talking 'theory' rather than 'ball of' here - and Planck. So much for small. Going in the opposite direction, we soon pass the things of Earth - blue whales, the Large Hadron Collider, Italy - and head off into space encountering heavenly bodies with names that sound like discontinued Ikea coffee tables: Rigel, Gacrux, Deneb, anyone? Soon we're on the scale of the Kuiper Belt, the Homunculus Nebula and Gomez' Hamburger. By this point, these objects drifting through space have begun to look eerily similar to creatures that live in the deepest darkest reaches of our oceans. By the time we're at the limits of the observable universe the scale is so immense that it's barely comprehensible. A video on the website neatly ties together the utter immensity of the universe, the extraordinarily tiny things within it, and our place somewhere in between. Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out that the atoms of which we ourselves are composed came from the stars. 'I know that we are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But perhaps most important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.'