Making Sense of Your World Through Scale

Co-authored with Megan Watzke

What do natural disasters, gravitational waves from space, and Taylor Swift have to do with one another? The obvious answer is “not much.”

However, these seemingly disparate phenomena all have one very important thing in common: the requirement to comprehend and consume extreme numbers – both very large and very small.

A fire burns out of control along a ridge during the California wildfires in Rough and Ready, Calif., Oct. 12, 2017.
A fire burns out of control along a ridge during the California wildfires in Rough and Ready, Calif., Oct. 12, 2017.

Our world, including current events, is full of facts and figures that challenge our understanding. For example, wildfires have destroyed over 220,000 acres in California alone in the most recent spate of horrific fires there, and more than 8.5 million acres have burned in the western U.S. this year to date. While this sounds like a big number, what does it mean?

An artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.
An artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars.

In a completely different realm, scientists on Monday announced that they had detected tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time cause by the merger of two cores of dead stars. Gravitational waves are extremely tiny, which is why scientists need to build special, super-sensitive detectors placed thousands of miles apart to make such detections. But how small are gravitational waves really?

Taylor Swift on Good Morning America for the launching of a previous album (Red Album)
Taylor Swift on Good Morning America for the launching of a previous album (Red Album)

And then there’s Taylor Swift. When she launched her latest single this summer, it nearly, as they say, broke the Internet. Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” released on August 25th, was streamed over 10 million times on Spotify, and garnered 24 million views of the video over the course of its first weekend. We’re told that this is a new record, but by a lot or a little?

This is the crux of the issue: we are barraged with various numbers and figures, some of which sound incomprehensible, throughout our daily lives. From the economy to the environment, from popular culture to current science, and practically anything in between, there are many values that can be difficult to grasp: billions of tons of ice lost in Antarctica, trillions of U.S. dollars worth of debt, quadrillions of calculations per second in a super computer, and so forth (a quadrillion is, amazingly, not a made up number, but a 10 with 24 zeroes after it).

This is where the simple, yet powerful, tool of comparisons can come to the rescue.

With the recent devastating wildfires in California, hearing the value of 220,000 acres might not mean that much, but we can picture it as being about four times the area of the world’s ten smallest countries – combined. To think of it another way, it is equivalent to about 3,000 times that covered by the National Mall in Washington, DC. If you’ve ever spent a hot summer day walking between all the monuments on the Mall, knowing that comparison might help make it more relatable.

Or, take the case of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time. They can be measured like any other wave from one peak to the next. In the case of these cosmic ripples, the distance between these peaks is a mind-blowing 0.00000000000000000001 meters. That’s a decimal point followed by 18 zeroes. On that scale, it’s challenging to fathom anything, but it could be helpful to know that it’s smaller than one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton, the tiny particle found in the center of an atom. If that’s not a helpful comparison, consider too that a gravitational wave is about 1 billion times smaller than an atom itself, the basic building block of matter. That would be like the difference between Earth (atom) and a marble (gravitational wave).

This leads us to Taylor Swift. Her success comes at a time when the music industry has almost completely become intertwined with our digital society. Every minute of low-resolution video played on YouTube uses about 4 MB of data per minute. A higher quality video (720 or 1080p) uses 12.4 MB for that same minute.

For reference, a typical 1990s hard drive could only store 4 MB of data. Swift’s video lasts just over four minutes and amassed 43.2 million views in 24 hours. That means, even with conservative estimates, her video caused the usage of more data in one day than all the personal computers could have stored across the country just two decades ago.

The long and the short of it (pardon the pun) is that understanding scale is not just a fun mental exercise or a way to impress the person sitting next to you on the subway. Understanding scale is a form of literacy in navigating our world.

The numbers we come across on a daily basis are important because they inform the reality around us. Maybe it doesn’t matter if Taylor Swift had ten times more downloads than the previous record holder, but it does have significance for many people when wildfires across our country impact an extensive area, and when a hurricane is vastly more destructive.

We hold the belief that numbers and the concepts they convey are important. Science and math are not the separate purviews of a small cadre of white, male individuals locked up in labs or chained to their telescopes.

These things, these quantities, these phenomena exist all around us. It’s up to us to empower ourselves with the knowledge and skills to interpret them.

And while you take a moment to contemplate the enormity of the numbers around us, download Taylor Swift’s new song. You might like it.

Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand are the authors of “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe,” coming soon, on November 7, 2017.

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