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Getting a sense of size visually

Getting a sense of size visually
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First Published: Tue, Oct 05 2010. 07 44 PM IST

Scale matters: Link the size or the numbers to something personal.
Scale matters: Link the size or the numbers to something personal.
Updated: Tue, Oct 05 2010. 07 44 PM IST
The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. Tens of millions of people congregate at Haridwar for a dip in the holy Ganga. We see photographs in newspapers and images on television, but how do you explain to someone the scale of this mass of humanity? What does “tens of millions” mean? Will it cover the entire city of Delhi? Extend from Mumbai to Pune? Fit in Manhattan?
Scale matters: Link the size or the numbers to something personal.
To most people, a number or size makes sense only when it is put into context. How vast is the flood in Pakistan that began in July? You get a better sense of the devastation when you are told that the number of people affected by the floods exceeds the combined total of people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
You find it even easier to get a grip on the scale if you can link the size or the numbers to something personal, something you are familiar with or can imagine. If you superimpose the area affected by Pakistan floods over the map of India, you get a wide swathe from the border of Nepal all the way down to Bangalore, stretching miles to the east and west. It divides the country vertically. You look at the image and you immediately realize the extent of the tragedy. As for the Kumbh Mela, leave alone Manhattan, it will cover the state of New York and beyond.
I have taken these examples from BBC Dimensions, a recently launched website (you’ll find it at www.howbigreally. com) aimed at bringing home “the human scale of events and places in history” it “juxtaposes the size of historical events with your home and neighbourhood”. It’s not yet perfect but it gives you a visual sense. At the moment Dimensions is limited to events in history, but as an idea, it has enormous potential. It’s a useful resource for students, teachers, journalists, writers and those who are just curious.
Scientists often tell us that sea levels are rising because of global warming, and that the Maldives is in danger of being submerged. They reel out numbers such as “9-88 cm (3.5-34.6 inches) over the next hundred years” that we find difficult to grasp.
There’s a website called Information is Beautiful (www.informationisbeautiful.net) that does a brilliant job of putting things in perspective through elegantly designed infographics. I could visualize what will happen if the sea level goes up by a metre (Venice would be drowned) when I saw their simple illustration. A 2m rise would submerge Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Hamburg.
I stumbled upon these websites when I was trying to put Rs 70,000 crore (or about $15 billion—the amount we’re told we spent on the ongoing Commonwealth Games) into some context. How do you explain this in terms of your everyday life or your monthly household budget?
We’ve heard that Americans throw away 18 billion disposable diapers a year, and that laid end to end they would stretch to the moon and back seven times, but how does one arrive at this calculation? I have come across many more equations of this kind on the Net. On the re-branded TLC channel the other evening I learned that Las Vegas has 24,150km of neon lighting. Did someone get down to measuring each neon light? That would take years.
As I was looking for an answer I came across a website called NumberQuotes (www.numberquotes.com) where you can enter a number to get an idea of the scale: For example, 1,234 soda cans stacked on top of each other would be as high as 2.47 Eiffel Towers, or 780 iPhones laid end to end would approximately reach as far as one American football field. But it’s a bit of a joke: Most of the answers it throws up are measured in terms of Empire State Building, Burger King and Big Macs. It would probably make sense if you were in the US.
If you lived in the US instead of India, you would no doubt make 14 times more money and live 11.78 years longer, but you would also spend 77 times more money on healthcare. I didn’t make this up. Go to Ifitweremyhome.com to find out what your life would be like if you were living in some other country.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at thesmartlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Oct 05 2010. 07 44 PM IST