Romancing the near-impossible

Visualizing this produces Lovecraftian madness

Today we will attempt to grasp the most difficult known fact, by which I mean something that we know actually happened. To you. In the past.

I am speaking, of course, about the Inflationary Epoch. The speed of expansion “during” the Inflationary Epoch was unimaginably great. By which I mean it cannot be emulated in the human imagination. And even if you could pull it off, you would be reduced to to gibbering insanity like a Lovecraftian victim-hero.

Here is the fact. Be careful. By reading this, your mind will attempt also to understand it. I have hidden it below using the DocHere macro:

Hover below if you dare

Between 10−36 and 10−32 seconds after the Big Bang, the universe increased its volume by a factor of at least 1078.

Welshman to the Inflationary Epoch. If it were a movie, it would kill you. To intuit such a gargantuan expansion is impossible given our imaginary equipment, but we might be able to infer our way there. Another problem: we lack a vocabulary to conceive even the terms of the transformation. But we might get a taste for this unthinkable event if we cut back and consider an infinitesimal fraction of this expansion (a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of it), i.e., an expansion factor of 1026 applied to a single nanometer.

Inflating a volume merely by a factor of 1026 is equivalent to expanding a diameter of 1 nm to a diameter of 10.6 light years, or 100,280,000,000,000 km (100.28 trillion km).

Got that? Good—now multiply that by 10 … 52 times. This is a growth spurt so grand that it makes the Day of Brahma stuff in the Puranas look small.

Grasping the end-point (current universe size)

To get a sense of the end-product of 10.6 light years, check out this map of all the star friends in our 12.5 light year radius-hood:

Here are our neighbors. We know them well. The numbers are distances in light years.
Here are our neighbors. We know them well. The numbers are distances in light years.

Here’s another:

Break out your 1954 red and cyan anaglyph glasses to enjoy this animated 3-D model of our neighbors inside a 14 light year radius.
Break out your 1954 red and cyan anaglyph glasses to enjoy this animated 3-D model of our neighbors inside a 14 light year radius.

Grasping the starting point (the Planck length)

To get a sense for the starting-product of the insane-making expansion, consider that the diameter of the average atom is 300 pm, or 0.3 nm (atomic diameter ranges from 0.06–0.6 nm). What’s that? The diameter of a low-energy hydrogen atom isn’t a natural unit for you? We can get their inferentially, by recursion: take something 3 mm in diameter (a sesame seed) and cut it into 10ths, pick one of fragments and then cut it into tenths … and repeat this process seven more times.

Here are some other examples of smallness to think about:

  • A hydrogen atom is 0.025 nm in diameter, and the distance between the teeth of an X-ray saw blade is only 0.005 nm (5 pm), a fifth of a hydrogen atom. No wonder they scramble our DNA—it’s small enough to grab and knock hydrogen atoms.
  •  A gamma ray wavelength is a fifth of an X-ray’s, at 1 pm.
  • Divide that into 100, and one of those is the average size of a nucleus (10 fm, or 10-14 m). A 10th of that is a proton (1 fm).
  • Divide the diameter of a proton by 1000 to get a quark (1 am, or 10-18 m).
  •  Divide the diameter of a quark by 1000 to get a high-energy neutrino (1 zm, or 10-21 m). Divide that by another 1000 to get a normal one (1 ym or 10124).
  • Finally, a 10-billionth of a ym is the granular minimum existent of space itself, the Planck length, at 10-35 m.

An interactive aid
Come to think of it, you can get a good intuition for spatial scale by using the awesome interactive perspective-zooming website:

Scale Tech

The Scale of the Universe

Grasping the brevity of the

Finally, to build your comprehension towards the frightening brevity of the insane out-popping, you would have to divide a second into 10ths, pick the first one, and then divide it into tenths (and so on) … 33 times.

Your total speed: 3,037,670 km/h plus the speed of space itself, which is greater than light relative to some distance places in this universe 93,000,000,000 light years across.)^