How To Measure the Universe

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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Measuring distance doesn’t sound like a very challenging thing to do — just pick your standard unit of choice and corresponding tool calibrated to it, and see how the numbers add up. Use a meter stick, a tape measure, or perhaps take a drive, and you can get a fairly accurate answer. But in astronomy, where the distances are vast and there’s no way to take measurements in person, how do scientists know how far this is from that and what’s going where?

Luckily there are ways to figure such things out, and the methods that astronomers use are surprisingly familiar to things we experience every day.

[/caption]The video above is shared by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and shows how geometry, physics and things called “standard candles” (brilliant!) allow scientists to measure distances on cosmic scales.

Just in time for the upcoming transit of Venus, an event which also allows for some important measurements to be made of distances in our solar system, the video is part of a series of free presentations the Observatory is currently giving regarding our place in the Universe and how astronomers over the centuries have measured how oh-so-far it really is from here to there.

Video credits:
Design and direction: Richard Hogg
Animation: Robert Milne, Ross Philips, Kwok Fung Lam
Music and sound effects: George Demure
Narration and Astro-smarts: Dr. Olivia Johnson
Producer: Henry Holland

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7 Responses

  1. GayLetitia says:

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  2. Eppur_si_muove says:

    Remarkable video, it reminds me of why I fell in love with astronomy as a child.

  3. Aqua4U says:

    This video is an excellent primer for anyone new to astronomy and/or confused about how interstellar distances are determined. Now if I could only convince my brother! I think I’ll forward this along to him? Maybe naught… as below…

    His take is that yes, parallax methods may work but that the use of any other standard candle(s) including the Doppler effect can only be qualified as a ‘quesstimate’ or approximation. He’s simply not convinced – aka skeptics unite? Dzzzzzz… IN FACT, this very issue has been the source of an ongoing argument between us over the years. One which he apparently will never tire? Whereas, I’m done…. My take is this is a case of simple sibling rivalry – has to be, he’s otherwise a very intelligent man. BUT elder brother is always right and younger brother is a pain in the ass with his science crap? Too bad, how sad.. his loss, not mine.

    Do you know anyone like this? Someone stuck in the previous paradigm and who is thoroughly unconvinced even after being presented with all the evidence and has slammed the door shut on the stars above? Religion will do it… sibling rivalry too, but the worst case has got to be simple ignorance? Oui?

    • Skipdallas1 says:

      I can relate! Sib’s can be very obtuse, to the point of maddening-pull-out -your- own- hair trying to figure them out. Just give it up. There is no saving a person that wishes to be a dumbass and ignore the evidence put before them. The only people that are worse are the religious fanatics that for reasons of faith and dogma will illogically argue with you about the silliest things that have nothing to do with religion. Their loss, for I believe that there is room for both religion and science in an educated persons life. (actually ANY persons life).

  4. Harkabir Singh Jandu says:

    Is this video available on Youtube? Vimeo is now banned in India 🙁

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