Zooming in on life

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.]


  1. Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    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. Matthew Cobb
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

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

    • Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      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.


      • Steve in Oakland
        Posted August 14, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        One way to make it stop is to quit looking at it. :>)

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          I was waiting for someone to say that. . .

          • Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink



    • Occam
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      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. Matthew Cobb
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Scale is given on the bottom right, so amphipod is a few mm long

    • Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      So, a bit smaller than a wheat kernel. Thanks — that helps!


  4. Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I found what appears to be a high res still along with an image citation (Image Credit: James Tyrwhitt-Drake, University of Victoria) here: http://infinity-imagined.tumblr.com/post/27461239385/diatoms-are-single-celled-photosynthetic-algae

  5. Sigmund
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I imported it into adobe Imageready and got a series of 50 individual pictures from the animated gif.

  6. Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Very cool.

  7. Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Just think of it as Google Earth locating Montgomery, Alabama.

    • Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Montgomery, yes: as someone else who hails from there, this explains the nausea I am experiencing!

  8. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    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!

    • AGS
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      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**

      • Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        That is truly amazing.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

        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.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 15, 2012 at 3:31 am | Permalink

        So, um, thanks!

  9. Posted August 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink


    Here it is with the loop turned off, and a little slower (for less nausea.)

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

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

      • Posted August 15, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        Thanks. I just had to take it apart in Photoshop and re-export it out as a new animated gif.

  10. Marella
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink


  11. Chris Granger
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    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.

    • steve oberski
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      Tip of the day, thanks.

  12. Occam
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one so old that I’m immediately reminded of the splendid Ray and Charles Eames production, “Powers of Ten” ?


    • Bruce S. Springsteen
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      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.

  13. Augustus de Morgan
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    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.

  14. marksolock
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  15. HaggisForBrains
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:26 am | Permalink

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

    • Sawdust Sam
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      13, 15, 16 – is that great minds at work, a coincidence, or just a common culture?

  16. Sawdust Sam
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    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

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 25, 2012 at 5:19 am | Permalink

      Apparently stolen (or inaccurately quoted) by De Morgan from Swift….

  17. Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink


    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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