Why understanding scale is vital, not just for science, but for everyone

"I go to the Natural History Museum and look at the cage of stuffed starlings there. But my favourite thing is the big blue whale. The scale of it is unbelievable, and makes you feel how insignificant you are as a human being." -Arthur Darvill

How good is your sense of scale? Humans are notoriously bad at this, and yet understanding the magnitude of an event like Hurricane Harvey is much more difficult (and important) than simply using a slew of superlatives. If someone tells you how large the flood in Houston is, and tells you it's "100,000 times the area of the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.," or "enough water to fill a cube two miles on a side," does that help you visualize it?

The National Mall in Washington D.C., itself a substantially large area, would need to be multiplied by a factor of 100,000 to equal the area of flooding in the greater Houston, TX area. Image credit: Peter Fitzgerald / Wikimedia Commons.


Scientists need to use tools and tricks like this much more frequently than they do, as these scale-based analogies are often some of the most helpful offerings they can give to help the public understand what's going on in a quantitative way. Visualizations in relatable terms like this are what we need more of, and analogies to more tangible scales can truly help communicate science to all.

Comparing the size of unrelated objects, such as a 'familiar' one with an 'unfamiliar' one, can help people get a feel for scale in a uniquely powerful way. Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab.




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Here in the UK we have a more standard unit scale, for areas it is the size of Wales, and for volume either olympic swimming pools or Wembley Stadium. For height we use double decker buses, or occasionally Nelsons Column.