Tuesday, December 21


Way back in 1977 earthlings received a picture from NASA’s Voyager 1 satellite that showed both the earth and its moon. It was the first time the two celestial bodies appeared together in one picture. Due to the distance from which the image was made, 7.25 million miles, the moon-earth distance was foreshortened, making the moon look uncomfortably close to our planet. If the picture had been taken at an even greater distance, the two bodies could seem to be almost attached to each other.

That’s the odd thing about perspective. Years ago I bought a 500 mm lens for my 35 mm Nikon film camera. I was fascinated at how the lens seemed to distort perspective. One of the first photographs I took with it was a face-on picture from several hundred feet away of my 1963 Volkswagen Beetle. The car was squished almost flat; on the print I made, the back tires were the same size as the front tires. That picture brought a very important point about perspective home to me—the farther away from the subject you are, the more accurate the relationship of the subject’s component sizes becomes. In reality, the VW’s tires were the same size, which was very apparent in the long-lens photograph. In a picture taken closer to the car the tires near the camera would look bigger than the tires farther away.

As lens makers came up with shorter focal-length lenses, like 10 mm, photographers had fun with the extreme relative distortion they could create. For a while in advertisments we saw pictures taken from above where a person’s head was huge compared to the body below. It seems advertising people exploit weirdness before anyone else.

That got me to thinking: What if someone showed you the relative sizes and distances of the most basic forms of matter, like atoms. What if you were small enough to visualize the components of the lightest atomic element, hydrogen. Here we have a tiny nucleus, one proton. Whizzing around that nucleus is a single electron, a particle that is 1,800 times less massive. If you enlarged the particles to where you could actually see them, how far apart would they be? How big would they be in relation to each other?

If the single-proton nucleus of a hydrogen atom were the size of a soccer ball, the electron spinning around it would be the size of a pea (I am making this up, so don’t use this as a reference in your Ph.D thesis). The tiny pea could be 100 miles away from the soccer ball and circling way beyond the speed of light. Since this defies the laws of physics, let’s bring things down in size. Let’s make the size of the nucleus like a chocolate coated hazelnut. The electron is like a nascent knee wart 18 miles away moving at 5,693 miles an hour. Or how about this: Make the nucleus the size of a fully-cooked rice grain and the electron like the period at the end of this sentence as displayed on an iPhone 4 at a distance of the altitude of a traffic helicopter over the average Los Angeles freeway morning commute, going the speed of a ’63 Volkswagen with equal-size tires.

Don’t you just love science?

That’s my perspective on perspective. Right now I have a very interesting carpenter ant cruising around on my keyboard, so I am going to blog about her after I get a few good pictures with my non-perspective-distorting lens on a digital camera at an undetermined distance.

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