My article, Long way to the chemist’s: a rough guide to distances in the universe, was published in The Conversation (in fact, it's lead article :). Following on from my article on stars, I was asked to think about distances in the Universe.
My guiding idea is the marvelous quote by Douglas Adams from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy;
"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."I've spend quite a bit of time thinking about scale in the Universe, and remember animated discussions as a young PhD student with a good colleague on the question of "If the Milky Way was a 1p coin, how far away would the edge of the [Observable] Universe be?", and the distance (of order a couple of km) always struck me as being exceedingly close!
Also, in these articles, while you can convey the relative distances, it's hard to really demonstrate the underlying structure to the Universe. Things aren't thrown about randomly, but stars, of course, live in galaxies, and most galaxies live in groups. As an example, here's the Hickson Group
As we move up in scale, then we get bigger agglomerations of galaxies, into spectacular clusters. This is Abell 1869
Of course, this is the future of our Milky Way, as in roughly three billion years it will collide with Andromeda. John Dubinski of Toronto shows us what will happen
These groups and clusters are not randomly scatter through space, but sit together embedded in a cosmic web. One of the great Australian astronomical successes is the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey which charter the positions of almost a quarter of a million galaxies using the 2dF spectrograph on the Anglo-Australian Telescope and produced a map of the (relatively nearby) structure of the Universe.
What did they find? Here's on of their maps (and look at the distance scale)
But science is more than just making pretty pictures. What do our theories predict? I don't have time to describe the various steps involved, but here's a patch of a simulated universe taken from Shaun Coles' (of Durham University) website
With regards to my The Conversation article, I spent quite a bit of time ensuring the scales are correct, which can be tricky to do when you juggle metres, with light years and giga-parsecs, but, of course, that's what it's all about.
Not everyone is concerned with accuracy. Case in point, the new background for Mac os X is a lovely picture of a galaxy I will be observing again, namely the Andromeda Galaxy. Here's Mac's picture:
Rob Glender and we see that Mac have excised one of the lovely dwarfs orbiting Andromeda, namely NGC 205 (also known as M110). Maybe they thought that users might think it's a smudge on the screen, or maybe it just isn't pretty enough, but not everyone seems to be that interested in accuracy.