Measure of the Universe

“The Universe is so vast and the atom is so small that in neither case does it seem that we can grasp the dimensions involved…in the same way we can understand those of a breadbox, or a cat, or anything else we are accustomed to that has a size sufficiently similar to our own.”

—from the Introduction

In The Measure of the Universe, our leading storyteller of science chooses the domain of the entire universe to show how big is big and how small is small. In “The Ladder of Length,” for example, he moves from atoms to visible objects right up through human size to giant trees, dinosaurs, skyscrapers, mountains, asteroids, satellites, large planets to the Sun and the stars. He does the same for area, volume, mass, density, pressure, time, speed, and temperature, comparing items from the physical and biological worlds as they exist for each step of the ladder. So, by measuring a smaller, easily comprehensible dimension and multiplying it be larger and smaller exponents, he shows us how to grasp—intuitively at least—the size of our universe in all its proportions. Finally, he brings all those aspects of dimension together in human terms to describe the dimension of our individual and collective understanding of the size of the Universe in recent history.

Asimov’s knowledge of science is boundless and his approach is, as always, delightful. His examples at every step are informative and fascinating: Did you know, for instance, that the tallest man on record was a medical giant at 2.75 meters (9 feet) tall—the same size as the largest ape, Gigantophithecus (now extinct), who was normal at that height? Or that the smallest known dinosaur, Compsognathus, was six decimeters long—about the size of a chicken?

The Measure of the Universe will be invaluable to all of us nonscientists who want to understand in easy terms how scientists arrive at measuring the invisible and the infinite. Asimov fans and science readers will be equally entertained and enlightened by this book, too.

This book provides a rather unique way to look at measurements and the scale of life around us. (This is something Asimov does in some of his F&SF essays, but never as completely or exhaustively as this.) This is in some sense a book of lists, lists of objects all a certain size, or weight, or distance, or something.

The first section of the book, for example, deals with length. First object about a meter long are listed, then objects about 3.16 meters long (that being the approximate square root of ten), then ten meters, then 31.6 meters, and so on all the way up to one octillion meters, which is more than the circumference of the observable Universe. And then we go down: one meter, 0.316 meters, 0.1 meters, and so on.

Along the way we learn some mathematics, a lot about the metric system, and an awful lot about how big things really are and how they compare. Because Asimov handles things on a geometric scale, it becomes relatively easy to head upwards (and downwards) with enormous rapidity and yet get a sense for the relative sizes (or whatever) of various objects.

This book was not an enormous success, which is rather a pity because it’s rather good and definitely worth getting ones hands on if at all possible.

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