Visualizing the Distance to the Nearest Star

When I am preoccupied with our small lives, political upheaval, and a raging pandemic, it always helps me when I get some perspective on the my life, the world, and ultimately what really matters.

Invariably, I get drawn to astronomy, and visualizing the amazing distances involved. We even have this saying that when some number is huge, it’s “astronomical.”

At one time I speculated and visualized the size of our galaxy with respect to the sun. I wanted to know the distance to the nearest star if the sun was the size of a red blood cell. I documented that in this post Tangerines and the Size of the Solar System and Galaxy, which you might read again.

Recently I stumbled upon this video by a young man in Switzerland. He used a more humanly imaginable scale of the sun being 1 millimeter in diameter, or about size size of a grain of sand. After all, I am sure you can’t really visualize the size of a red blood cell of 7 micrometers. But we all know the size of a grain of sand. Here is his video. It takes a few minutes, but you will enjoy it.

You must admit, that after he walked away from his yard and got in his car, you were amazed, but then, as he kept driving, it brought it home more and more.

30 kilometers, or about 19 miles, is a huge distance from one to the next grain of sand. There is nothing else in between. Imagine a space ship having to travel that distance, and you quickly realize how unlikely travel between the stars actually is. Then think about that when somebody tells you about UFOs coming from “outer space.”

At that scale, our galaxy would be about the size of the orbit of the moon around the earth. Imagine a disk as big as the path of the moon around the earth, all filled with grains of sand (stars) being some 30 kilometers apart from each other on the outside, and a bit more dense in the center. This also helps with visualizing two galaxies colliding. Would stars ever collide, when they are grains of sand 30 kilometers apart in each galaxy? Not very likely at all.


Visualizing Voting Results

The conservative (red) side of the nation often likes to show this map which makes the election look like a red landslide:

However, this a map showing land, and land does not vote, people do.

Here is what the map looks like showing population centers, where the dots are sized according to the county population:

Data and graphic credit

This makes much more sense and gives a visual representation of the population centers in our country.

It does become obvious, however, that cities and college towns vote blue, the rural areas vote red.

Warning: This specific map is based on the results of the 2016 election – [note that Maricopa County (Phoenix, Arizona) shows red], but it gives a good idea regardless.



Visualizing Millionaires and Billionaires / Sanders and Bloomberg

In the last few days, I saw some ridiculous comments about accusing Bernie Sanders as a hypocrite because he is a “millionaire” and therefore no different from Bloomberg. According to some statistics, Sanders’ net worth is estimated to be about $2.5 million. Many homeowners in California who bought their home more than 20 years ago are about that “wealthy” and they don’t consider themselves rich. But that’s a whole different scale from a billionaire.

Bloomberg’s published net worth is about $64 billion. Let’s visualize that.

Let’s pick a convenient time to start, say the birth of Christ, year 0 in our calendar. Let’s say you started working in year 0 and you worked 40 hours a week, and your hourly wage was $15,000 per hour. —  No, not Sanders’ proverbial 15 bucks an hour of minimum wage, but 15 thousand bucks an hour.

Right about now, you’d have earned $63 billion. There is no interest, inflation or any other factor involved here. Just 2020 years times 2080 work hours per year times $15,000 per hour.

$63 billion is a lot more than what a “run of the mill” millionaire like Bernie Sanders is worth.


Visualizing the National Debt of the U.S.

Here is a nice chart that shows how the debt grew under the various presidents. Things started to get nasty with Reagan and just kept doing. Trump is outpacing all that came before him.

Credit: – click for reference

Threatening Iran

Many Americans don’t realize how big Iran is. Iran is about four times as large as California or just about the size of Alaska. Geographically, it is the 17th largest country in the world. With 82 million people, it’s the 18th largest country by population and about the size of Germany, the largest country by population in Europe.

Here is a map showing Iran. It’s almost as large as Saudi Arabia, and it dominates the Middle East. It is a neighbor to almost all Middle Eastern countries.

It’s funny to see the country as it is surrounded by United States military bases. When you look at that map, it makes you wonder who is threatening whom?

What would we Americans think if there were Iranian military bases by the dozens all along the border in Canada and Mexico, as well as in Cuba, all over the Pacific, and in Greenland and Iceland? Would we feel threatened?

I am not a friend of the Iranian regime. It’s a terrible, oppressive, murderous country. But I know Iranian people, and I have a lot of respect for them.

Looking at this map makes me think:

What the hell are we doing messing with a country of this size, so far away, with no chance of making any difference, other than spending a lot of money and risking a lot of American lives (again)?

Can we please leave Iran alone?

Visualizing the Vastness of the Universe

Today’s NASA’s image of the day is this stunning photography of the Galaxy M81 in Ursa Major.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [click to enlarge]
I have taken the liberty of adding a little mark for illustration purposes. I added a tiny red circle at the end of the green arrow.

If M81 were the Milky Way, our own sun would be approximately where the little red circle is. A bit on the outside of one of the arms, far away from the center.

However, here comes the stunner: If this were the Milky Way, and our sun would be in the middle of the little red circle I drew, then all the stars we see with our naked eyes in our night sky would be within the little red circle. The farthest stars we can see are just a few thousand light years away.

And that is our little world.

Visualizing the Atlantic Slave Trade

To get a sense of what it was like to travel on a slave ship, I resort to a Wikipedia post:

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of taking slaves, especially newly captured African slaves to the Americas. Living conditions for slaves on these ships was inhuman. Men, women and children were crowded into every possible space leaving no room to move or even breathe. There was little food and the smell could not be described. Between 1526 and 1867 about 12.5 million slaves were sent by slave ships from Africa to the Americas. But only about 10.7 million slaves actually arrived. Of all human migrations it was the most costly in terms of human lives lost. The average time to sail across the Atlantic took from 60 to 90 days. Sometimes the trips took up to four months.

Here are some charts showing the way people were crammed into the vessels:

Now for the shocking visualization.

The video below shows the movement of slaves in over 15,000 journeys. Every one of the moving dots on this graphic is a journey of a ship holding hundreds of victims, for 3 or 4 months, in these conditions, against their will.

More than 10 million human beings were displaced in this fashion.


The scale of the slave trade and its injustice comes to life this video.

Visualizing the Size of Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County is the largest county by population by far in the country, with 10.1 million. The larger metropolitan area, which spills into some other counties, has a population of 17.8 million.

If Los Angeles County were a state, it would be the 8th largest state. Only California (without Los Angeles), Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio are larger.

Look at the map above. Los Angeles County, the little red speck on the map, is larger than every one of the states shown in blue.

And incredibly, to top this off, the upper half of Los Angeles County is all desert, so it’s really the lower half that counts for all the population.

Perspective on the Oroville Dam


Here is the spillway of the Oroville Dam with the broken section. The emergency overflow spillway is to its left, and the main dam to its right.

The spillway releases about 100,000 cubic feet of water per second, that’s about 748,000 gallons per second.

For comparison, the American side (left) of Niagara Falls has a flow of about 150,000 gallons per second, and the Canadian Horseshoe falls (right) have another 600,000 gallons per second.


This means that the Oroville spillway has about the capacity of Niagara Falls in total.

How’s that for perspective.

Post 3000

I just did a random check of the statistics of this blog site and noticed that I have 3000 live posts.


Ok, it’s now 3001 after I push publish here.

Visualize Climate Change

Brilliant Chart by Randall Munroe.

Make sure you give it a good read, and scroll down slowly, all the way to the bottom. This is a good visualization for those who argue that “the climate is always changing” like some of our illustrious members of Congress.


Two Trillion More Galaxies

Milky Way 1

Astronomers have just recently come to the conclusion that there are two trillion more galaxies in the universe than previously thought. We used to think there were 100 billion galaxies.

Our own galaxy, which is a pretty unremarkable one, is estimated to have about 400 billion stars.

Let’s just say there is only ONE intelligent civilization in every galaxy that is active and alive today. Just one. That would make it two trillion civilizations.

There are about 7.5 billion human beings on earth.

That means that there are 266 intelligent CIVILIZATIONS in the universe for every human being alive – right now.

This is beyond what I can fathom.

Ark Encounter – Hmmm

Ken Ham built the Ark Encounter, a Christian theme park. It is scheduled to open next month.

It cost tens of millions of dollars to build a “life-sized” replica of Noah’s ark.

I wonder how Noah, who was reportedly over 500 years old, with his sons, would have built such a thing with Bronze Age tools. He didn’t have access to cranes, and trucks, and roads to haul in lumber, and steel scaffoldings, and modern steel nuts and bolts and braces.

But I have to admit, it would be a cool thing to see.