Intriguing Visualizations of the Known Universe

A major conundrum of the human condition is “are we alone?” and “Is there a beginning, and an end?”

The American Museum of Natural History has developed a short visualization called the Known Universe. This is part of their Digital Universe Atlas which is creating a three dimensional map of the universe.

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The effectiveness of this visualization is that it starts out at Earth and then moves outward. The first minute of seeing the blue marble floating in space is quite humbling. The adding of data overlays such as tracked satellite patterns and nearby constellations was helpful. Within six minutes it goes from Tibet to the outer signals of the Big Bang and back again.

The production value and the contemporary visualization techniques of this video are well done. In a short amount of time it takes all the complexities and abstractions of the universe and distills it down to a visual storyboard. While compelling, this visualization is not the first to attempt to communicate the vastness of the universe.

Pale Blue Dot This conceptual and poetic visualization by Carl Sagan in 1994 was an extension of his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Carl Sagan had a way to intertwine both scientific and philosophical languages together into a compelling view of the universe, our the meaning of it. Looking at this film almost twenty years later, the actual visualizations feel more like a PowerPoint slide show. However, the images are supporting the concepts and narrative by Sagan which provides the imaginative depth that images alone could not communicate.

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Powers of Ten’s Scientific American teamed up with the office of Charles and Ray Eames (www.eamesoffice.com) in 1977 to develop the seminal Powers of Ten. The film is an adaptation of the 1957 book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke.

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I first saw this film in grammar school and then college and it caught my interest due to the understandable layers of information of forces I did not understand through direct experience. Looking at it now, it is a wonderful diagrammatic way to discuss the relative size of things using visualizations. This provides a more intuitive way of understanding mathematical concepts.

These three films had three different goals of using the universe as a metaphor. While the Known Universe feels more contemporary and uses sophisticated computer technologies that we are familiar with, the data overlays communicating distance and time are not effective and actually get in the way of the visualization. The Powers of Ten on the other hand, where communicating distance and time was the goal was much more effective even though it was flatter since the universe was always contained in a square field.
As visualization technologies become more sophisticated, seamless and pervasive, viewers expectations and biases will affect the effectiveness of visualizations. Vernor Vinge discussed this point in his PhD paper The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era but also saw a direct connection between humans and computers to Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans.

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2 years ago