Zooming in on life

August 14, 2012 • 1:14 pm

by Matthew Cobb

You’ve probably seen this as it has been everywhere already – Tumblr, Twitter, t’Internet – and it is going to make you nauseous after a while, but it’s still pretty cool. It shows an amphipod (the thing with legs), which has on it a diatom (the round thing) which in turn has on it a bacterium. It gives you some idea of the scale of life, all the more so when you remember that when life started, around 4 billion years ago, the first self-replicating molecules were far, far smaller than that bacterium!

This has been posted a million times all over the place, so I’m not going to give any credit to anyone. BUT I WANT TO KNOW WHO MADE THIS, AND HOW I CAN GET HOLD OF HI-RES IMAGES FROM IT. Readers, avid Googlers, please try and find out! I would also like to know how to make it STOP!

[EDIT: super-googler Brian Engler – comment 4 below – has found that this gif was made by James Tyrwhitt-Drake at the University of Victoria’s Advanced Microscopy Facility, and I’m trying to contact him.]

34 thoughts on “Zooming in on life

  1. To help with the sense of scale…how big is the amphipod…?

    As to “how to make it stop…”

    …if you’re on a Mac, save the image to your computer and open it in Preview. You’ll see every frame individually.



  2. I meant stop on the website! Don’t want readers being sick, but do want them to read the final bit…

    1. Well, same would apply. Once in Preview, you can easily save the individual frames. Then, you could post just one or two of the frames and add a link to the full animation.

      If you don’t have ready access to Preview or whatever would be comparable on Windows, drop me a line at ben@trumpetpower.com and I’ll reply with whatever individual frames you want.


    2. The ESC tip given by Chris Granger below works for Safari, too.

      A more radical solution is the Deanimator extension for Safari:
      It stops all animated gifs cold, but remember to check the “Apply to all images” case in the Safari Extensions preferences. Deactivate the extension if you want the animation back, and reload teh web page containing it.

      Turns out unstoppable gif animation is a bug (or stopping it a feature request) of long standing on WebKit based browsers:

      as well as on Chromium:

  3. Humans inherently cannot effectively process really small measurements or objects. I’m always on the lookout for examples to illustrate this inability.

    This is a very very good one!

    A more literary one, which I’ve quoted before, I’ve obtained from “Chemistry An Interdisciplinary Approach” by Robert W. Medeiros (Van Nostand Reinhold Company) (1971) page 134, 7-1 “Some Facts About Gases”:

    “A sample of gas consists mostly of empty space. The molecules which make up the air that we breathe occupy only about 1/1500 of the volume available to them. They are so small that even a very small quantity of a gas can contain an enormous number of them. For example, one cubic centimeter of air contains approximately 2.5 X 10 (to the 19th power) molecules. If the molecules were grains of sand, this would be sufficient to bury Chicago to a depth of about 14 feet.”

    It’s nice for Jerry that Medeiros uses Chicago!

    1. In a similar way, this one blows me away, too.

      “A crude estimate of the amount of DNA within currently living organisms can be made by noting that the length spanned by one base of DNA is ~0.3×10^-12 km .
      The number of viral particles in the open oceans is ~10^30 . Assuming that there are twice as many viruses on land and in fresh water does not change the global estimate very much at the order-of-magnitude level. Thus, assuming an average viral genome size of 10^4 bp, the total length of viral DNA if all chromosomes were linearized and placed end to end is ~10^22 km.
      The estimated global number of prokaryotic cells is ~10^30 , and assuming an average prokaryotic genome size of 3×10^6 bp yields an estimated total DNA length of 10^24 km.
      With a total population size of 6×10^9 individuals, 10^13 cells per individual , and a diploid genome size of 6×10^9 bp, the amount of DNA occupied by the human population is ~10^20 km. Assuming there are ~10^7 species of eukaryotes on Earth (~6 times the number that have actually been identified), that the average eukaryotic genome size is ~1% of humans, and that all species occupy approximately the same amount of total biomass, total eukaryotic DNA is ~10^5 times that for humans, or ~10^25 km.
      Given the very approximate nature of these calculations, any one of these estimates could be off by one or two orders of magnitude, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the total amount of DNA in living organisms is on the order of 10^25 km, which is equivalent to a distance of 10^12 light years, or 10 times the diameter of the known universe.”

      From Mike Lynch’s “The Origins of Genome Architecture”

      **I removed the citations from the above**

      1. Yes, astronomical bodies are vastly separated, but they are also of immense size.

        If not for various mechanical reasons, you could build a step ladder to the stars out of the material of Earth. (IIRC, too lazy to check over the day’s first coffee.)

        A DNA ladder to the stars (or the next observable universe over) is cooler though.

    1. That’s much better. Not only doesn’t make you sick, but gives you time to absorb what you’re seeing.

  4. I’m not sure if this works in other web browsers, but in Firefox on Windows, hit the Esc key to make .gif animations stop. Reload the page to start them up again.

    1. Not at all. I keep “Powers of Ten” handy (on my iPad most recently) and view it at least once a year for the last thirty years — my annual vaccination against provincialism.

  5. Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
    And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
    While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

  6. Big fleas have little fleas
    Upon their backs to bite ’em
    And little fleas have smaller ones
    And so, ad infinitum.

  7. Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
    Augustus De Morgan, 1806-1871

  8. Wonderful!

    How many people would not recognize the organisms as their fellow earthlings, and instead would see this as “Crash landing on an alien planet?”

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