Sometimes we want science to show us the complexity and uncertainty of everything, but sometimes we just want it to blind us.
You get a good dose of dazzle in Caleb Scharf and Ron Miller’s coffee table book The Zoomable Universe: An epic journey through cosmic scale, from almost everything to almost nothing. It reminds us of the wonderful scientific writings of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, and it reminds us that the scientific view of the world is both beautiful and rational.
Astrobiologist Caleb Scharf (The engines of gravity) teamed up with award-winning science illustrator Ron Miller to revisit a theme many of us remember from the stunning 1977 short film Powers of ten. In powers of ten, created for IBM by the designers at Eames, we start with human scale and then zoom “10 times further away every 10 seconds”, until we hover at the edges of known space. Then we dive down again, smaller and smaller, until we swim through human cells.
Scharf and Miller have done the same with The zoomable universestarting with the distant, frothy fabric of the constituent universe and ending in and out of existence with subatomic particles.
unlike powers of ten, however, The zoomable universe is packed with up-to-date scientific information. We learn the latest hypotheses about how the universe was born (complete with multiverses), what dark matter might be, and how galaxies form clusters and bubbles. Then we head for Earth, but not before exploring the life of stars, exoplanets, nebulae and more. Scharf carefully explains how these astronomical bodies form and what we know about their life cycles.
Miller complements Scharf’s readable, ravishing prose with images explaining everything from types of matter to types of exoplanets. After decades of working in scientific illustration, with a particular focus on astronomy, Miller is adept at beautifying science. The book is filled with his photos of galaxies forming, stars spewing superheated matter and planetary vistas that will take your breath away. In the gallery above you can see several examples of his work. Moreover, several charts of 5W Infographics are intriguing and rich in data.
Finally, we dive into the microcosm and dive into the world of cells, bacteria, viruses, protons and quarks. Scharf and Miller say that the universe does not end on a human scale. There is as much mystery and madness in the worlds we contain as there is in the worlds that contain us. With humor and obvious pleasure, they take us into the glittering eyes of a louse and through the membranes of a bacterium.
Suitable for curious people of all ages, The zoomable universe escapism is well done. You’ll find yourself transported to alien worlds, but by the time you’re done, you’ll know a lot more about reality than ever before.
List image by Ron Miller (Scientific American/FSG)