January 2, 2011

The Scale of Things

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Fold for thought, Western USA, Fall 2005.

There are shapes, colors, and patterns everywhere, and I marvel in how the same patterns often exist at vastly different scales.

I have found myself looking at a rockface, admiring the small, swirling, black-and-white folds in metamorphic gneiss or migmatite. Looking out at the wider landscape, I often see the swirls echoed. The thick rock layers composing the mountain are folded over and under much in the same way that the layers in the hand sample sized rock at my feet are folded. The rock has three inch folds; the mountain has three mile folds, perhaps.

In volcanology I also see patterns. Lava lakes, such as those found on the big island of Hawaii, are in many ways analogs for the entire Earth. At the cool surface of these lakes crusts can form. These crusts are moved around and broken up in ways that are similar to the ways in which Earth’s large tectonic plates are moved around. The crusts on lava lakes are rifted, slammed together, and subducted back into the lake. The scale is much smaller and the pace much faster, but in essence the plate tectonics of these lava lakes is not much different from the plate tectonics of the entire Earth.

Since childhood I have spent a great amount of time in a kayak on rivers. After I learned to read whitewater, I became amazed at what I would see in even the smallest of streams and creeks. Wherever water is flowing, there are similar patterns. Three inch waterfalls look very similar to three foot waterfalls which look similar to three hundred foot waterfalls. The eddies, swirls, and rushing water become more powerful at larger scales, but the basic ways in which water flows– in which it pools and falls and carves out landscapes– are the same. A close-up image of the stream in my backyard does not look so different from a distant shot of the mighty Amazon.

I sometimes spend time in the desert, sand grains sparkling below my feet by day, stars sparkling above my head by night. Clearly, a sand grain is much, much smaller than a star, but in the desert I sometimes feel that they must be the same size. In the winter I see sparkles in snowflakes. In the city I see sparkles in cement. These tiny flakes are like stars at my feet. Are the sparkles at my feet really so different from the distant sparkles of gas giants? I wonder, sometimes, if they are.

What are the connections between the different scales of the universe? Are there connections? Is the very large really that much different from the very small?

The different scales of the universe are not easy to grasp and understand. As a chemist, I find my work often resides in small scales that I cannot easily appreciate. The periodic table and different models for the structure of atoms are poor substitutes for “seeing” what is going on at this scale. Even high-tech tools such as electron mircoscopes and mass spectrometers provide only hazy glimpses into this scale of the universe.

Much of the challenge of my science is trying to simultaneously understand the very small and the very large. I study the chemistry of rocks to try to understand the larger picture: the forces and conditions that shape volcanoes, shape the Earth, shape the solar system, shape the universe. In my work I often try to understand something about the very large from the very small and vice-versa.

And, as a scientist, I wonder: how little do things become? How large do they become? Are quarks and galaxies just the tip of the cosmological iceberg? What mysteries remain below and above, within and without? And what are the connections, if any, between the very largest scales and the very smallest scales? These are all still outstanding questions in science. I don’t know that we’ll ever really have an answer, unless there really is a finite limit to the very small and very large.

I also wonder why the different scales of things fascinate me and fill me with such awe and reverence. I certainly don’t think there’s anything supernatural or paranormal going on. Yet, without needing a pantheon of Gods or even a single God or supernatural being or event to explain anything, I find contemplation of the different scales of the universe somewhat magical. I also find it both unsettling and comforting. Unsettling because I do not understand the meanings and connections between these patterns at different scales. Comforting because there is a sort of simple beauty in observing connections between the very large and the very small. Comforting because I have a sort of faith– yes, faith– in science, and I believe that the scientific method is capable of gradually unravelling these mysteries of scale although they may never fully be unravelled.

I highly recommend spending a few minutes today– or any day– marveling in the scales of the universe. For that purpose, I recommend this movie from the website “Molecular Expressions.” At this same website, you can also look at microscopic images of beer from around the world as well as of other materials such as cocktails, computer chips, and moonrocks. You can even order merchandise with your favorite microscopic images. Apparently, the cocktail and beer ties are best-sellers.