How Much of the Earth Can You See at Once?

How Much of the Earth Can You See at Once?

Hey, Vsauce, Michael here And here, I am the real Michael This Michael was created by a brilliant young man named Mitchell, who brought it to me at a meet-and-greet after Brain Candy Live It is phenomenal and obviously the most handsome jack-in-the-box ever Ever-est is a mountain that’s 8.848 km tall Its size is impressive Or is it? (Characteristic music of Vsauce, get prepared to be mind=blown) Let’s cut Earth, the entire planet, right in half, straight through Everest, and then start zooming out As you can see, Everest’s monumentality quickly disappears against Earth’s planetary ginormosity Compared to Earth’s diameter Everest—in fact, all of Earth’s ruggedness—barely registers That can seem surprising, since we are often surrounded by diagrams and maps and globes that exaggerate Earth’s topography There is a good reason to do that, but it leads to a misconception about just how smooth Earth is Here’s a typical example: a cross section of the United States that I found on reddit The vertical axis spans about 10,000 ft, but the horizontal axis represents nearly 14 million ft Stretched to the same scale so as to mirror reality, the actual smoothness of the Earth becomes apparent On this 1 ft diameter globe, Everest is a bump about 2 mm high Feels good! But if the Earth was actually this small, Everest would be a bump only 0.2 mm high It’s 10 times taller than it should be Only 24 people have seen the Earth, with their own eyes, as a circle small enough to be looked right at; not as the whole world, but as a little thing suspended alone in space The further away you are from a ball, the more of its surface you can see We don’t always notice this, because in our day-to-day lives, most of the balls we deal with are so small they’re almost always many of their own radii away from us, and the available amount of their surface visible is near a maximum Or, they’re so big, like the Earth, that we rarely get far enough away fast enough to notice this property But the next time you are near a ball, get close to it You’ll see that as you get nearer, more of its surface disappears behind the horizon, but moving back up will make it available again For most of us, stuck our whole lives on Earth’s surface, such an experience is impossible WIth nothing around to block your view, 5 km (about 3 mi) is about the furthest you can see Haze can limit your view and atmospheric refraction can slightly extend it, but for the most part, everything you can see happens within an area of just 80 km^2 That’s not bad, but it’s tiny compared with what there is to see The higher up you go, of course, the further away you will be able to see That’s why it’s great to be a satellite Here’s the International Space Station Yeah, look at that nice bit portion of the surface in view Unfortunately, this isn’t to scale If the Earth were the size of an apple, how far away would the International Space Station orbit? Like this far away? Maybe this far away Maybe this far away Actually, it orbits… here, 2.7 mm above the surface That’s how far the stem of this apple sticks up It’s not very far Oh, here’s another fun little to scale fact: if the Earth were the size of an apple, your eyeball would be about the size of the moon We often imagine that from the International Space Station, astronauts see the Earth like this, but they’re just not that far away From where they actually orbit, International Space Station residents only see about 3% of Earth’s surface at any one time And that 3% is too wide to all fit within a window When I was in Pittsburgh, their science museum had a mock-up of part of the ISS And as you can see, out of the window, Earth is still quite expansive Using special lenses, images can be taken from the ISS that look like circular disk Earths, but the lens is distorting things here It’s fitting much more into the picture In order to truly witness Earth’s entire shape with your own eyes, you would need to either smash your face right up against the window or just be floating outside the station And even then, you would have to move your head to see from edge to edge So, how high up do you have to go to see the edges of Earth all at once? And, even if you did that, how much would you actually see? How much is there to see? Earth is made of stuff, lots of stuff: water and dirt and rocks and air, all of which are composed of atoms tiny things so teeny that a single drop of water contains not a million atoms, not a billion atoms, or a trillion, or a quadrillion, or a quintillion but 5 sextillion atoms Earth is made of even more stuff: not a septillion atoms, not an octillion, nonillion, decillion, undecillion, duodecillion, tredecillion, not even a quattuordecillion but 100 quindecillion atoms But since we live only on the surface of our planet, we unfortunately can’t see most of those atoms If the Earth was shaped like a disk or an icosahedron, or, say, a cube, or a rectangular prism, or two stellated rhombic dodecahedrons, we could see more of the Earth than we normally can But as things are, we actually see nearly the least of Earth’s matter possible because of all solids, a sphere, which the Earth approximately is, has the smallest surface-area-to-volume ratio—the most stuff inside and the least stuff outside So, how many of these 10^50 atoms that make up Earth are on the surface for us to see? That’s not an easy question For one thing, technically, atoms on the surfaces of opaque things like rocks and dirt aren’t the only parts involved in their appearances Sub-surface scattering can and does happen Regardless, attempting even a rough approximation is illuminating I asked Grant from the YouTube channel 3Blue1Brown for some help And he pointed out that if you calculate the number of circles with atom-sized radii that could, packed optimally, cover a sphere with the surface area of Earth, you’ll get about 1.5×10^34 That’s a lot of atoms But then he pointed out that the Earth’s surface isn’t smooth Its roughness provides extra surface area for atoms to occupy Without a complete description of the shape of Earth’s surface—every mountain and valley, every bump on every rock—this is just gonna be hopeless, right? Well, here’s the thing, Earth is made of little rugged shapes that from far away make big rugged shapes In other words, Earth’s surface can be described as a fractal There is a regularity to its roughness In fact, mathematicians have even assigned a fractal dimension to Earth’s surface: 2.3 To see what that means, I highly recommend Grant’s video on fractal dimensions It’s fascinating Using 2.3 and assuming that it applies from the scale of a human hair up to that of a mountain, Grant found that the number of atoms on Earth’s surface changes significantly: up from a power of 34 to a power of 37 That’s 1000 times more atoms So, maybe we shouldn’t count Earth’s roughness out just yet It’s smooth, but not perfectly To put that number in perspective, the human body contains about 10^27 atoms That’s 10 powers of 10 less than the surface of the Earth 10 powers of 10 is 10 billion There are about 7.5 billion humans So, more or less, it can be said that there are the same number of atoms in every human body right now as there are on the surface of the Earth As I’ve shown before, all human bodies piled into one place would barely even fill the Grand Canyon, but all human atoms spread across the Earth would almost perfectly cover it just one atom deep Fun fact: the mass of the atmosphere is about 2.5% less than what you would get by multiplying sea level pressure (14.7 psi) by the surface area of the Earth because Earth’s terrain displaces about that much air Huh, Earth’s surface is pretty cool Obviously, I mean it got lichen and monster trucks and an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island But from down here, on its surface, we just can’t see that much of it Your view of Earth is obstructed by lots of opaque things: walls, buildings, trees, rocks, terrain If Earth was flat, you could see further, but sorry, it’s a rough world out there Or is it? If you could hold the Earth in your hands like this, how bumpy would it actually feel? We already saw that even our planet’s biggest bumps barely register relative to Earth’s size But let’s go somewhere famously flat, where relative to our size, terrain rarely gets in the way of seeing lots of the planet: the US state of Kansas I grew up here and took this footage while driving across the state last year You can probably see why Kansas is often called “flatter than a pancake” However, although it is famously flat, Kansas is not the flattest US state In a fantastic piece of research, Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell defined “looks flat” like this: if, from a given point, any part of the terrain within the horizon rises more than 0.32° up (about the height of a 30 m hill at the horizon), a typical person would say, “Hey! That part’s not flat!” By cleverly applying this rule to topographical data, they were able to give every state a flatness score West Virginia was the least flat Kansas was only the seventh flattest Delaware, Minnesota, Louisiana, North Dakota and Illinois are all, by this method, flatter than Kansas As was the number 1 flattest state: Florida Adam Savage and I had the pleasure of visiting Florida with our Brain Candy Live show this year, and as this footage from atop the King Center in Melbourne, Florida shows, it’s pretty gosh dang flat Even though Kansas is not the flattest, it is the state most often ranked flattest when the general population is asked It is truly, scientifically flatter than a pancake—it’s been demonstrated But there’s more to the story than that In 2003, researchers took a 130 mm wide pancake procured from IHOP and analysed its local reliefs They found the difference between high and low points was on the order of about 2 mm If a typical pancake like this was the size of Kansas, 5 million times larger, 2 mm high peaks would be 10 km high mountains In comparison, Mount Everest is only about 8.8 km tall and Earth’s deepest scar, the Marianas Trench, is thought to be just under 11 km deep So, not only is Kansas about as smooth as a pancake, but so is every other state in the union and so is the entire world If you were a giant holding the planet in your hands like this, you and it would be torn apart by the immense tidal forces created by your gravities If somehow you could avoid that though, the planet would feel not much rougher than running your hands over a pancake But a soggy one, right? I mean, most of Earth’s surface is covered in water—your hands would get wet Or would they? Yes, Earth is covered in liquid, but the depth of that liquid, like the mountains above, just doesn’t compare to the total size of the planet As it turns out, if the Earth was the size of a typical classroom globe like this one, 1 ft in diameter, the volume of water contained in, above and on it would only be about 14 mL That’s this much water It’s kinda hard to believe because at this scale, spreading this much water across all of the ocean surfaces would be pretty much impossible due to surface tension But, this is it: all of Earth’s water compared to all of Earth 90% of the space on our planet life can live in is in here The other 10% is dry land So, no, you wouldn’t get wrinkly fingers playing with an Earth like this You could sop it dry just with a paper towel Despite the incredible area oceans cover on our planet, their depth is just nothing compared to the size of our entire planet You may have heard it said that if the entire planet were shrunk down to the size of a billiard ball, it would be smoother than a billiard ball After all we’ve seen so far, that seems believable, but as it turns out, it’s not true The misconception stems from the interpretation of the World Pool-Billiard Association’s rules According to them, a ball must have a diameter of 2.25 in ± 0.005 in Some writers have taken this to mean that pits and bumps of 0.005 in are allowed Proportionately, on Earth, that would mean a mountain that was 28 km high So, since Earth has none of those, Earth must be smoother than a billiard ball Except if bumps that high were actually allowed on a pool ball, a ball covered with 120 grit sandpaper would be within regulation Clearly, the 0.005 in rule is more about roundness, deviation from a sphere, and not texture In fact, as microscopic photography has shown, imperfections on regulation balls are only 1/100,000 in, or about 0.5 μm deep and high Scaled to the size of a billiard ball, Earth’s Marianas Trench would be 49 μm deep So, Earth is smoother than a pancake but not smoother than a billiard ball Nor, as xkcd wonderfully showed, is Earth smoother than a bowling ball But hold on, earlier we were using the word “flat”, now we were using the word “smooth” That distinction is important You see, the Earth isn’t flat like a plane (or is it?) Instead, it curves It’s a ball Pieces of Earth, like Kansas, might be quite smooth, but they curve along with Earth If you were to stand in the middle of Kansas, people on the eastern or western edges of the state would appear to be, not level with you, but about 8.1 km below you That’s nearly the height of Everest And if they stood straight up, they’d be tilted nearly 2° relative to where you thought up was Here is an interesting coincidence: generally speaking, 1 mi from where you are, Earth curves down about 8 in; 1 km from where you stand, it curves down about 8 cm The rate of drop due to curvature isn’t a linear one You can’t just multiply any distance by 8 to get the drop due to curvature Instead, use an online calculator like the one I have linked down in this video’s description You can put in any distance you want Anyway, the visibility limit caused by Earth’s curvature is your horizon It encircles you like a visual cage, but it’s a cage whose radius is determined by how high up your eyes are Conan O’Brien, at 6 ft 4 in tall, can see up to 5 km in any direction, but Snooki, at 4 ft 8 in, can only see about 4.3 km To find out how far away your horizon is, geometrically, just use the online tools I’ve put down in the description below Earth’s texture can get in the way of your horizon but can also cause things beyond the horizon to peek into view factors all of this in If Earth was a smooth sphere, the view from atop Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles, would end at the horizon 131 km away (about 80 mi) Such an area would look like this But factoring in Earth’s ups and downs, here’s a more precise boundary of what you can see Loch Treig, Scottish Gaelic for “lake of death”, is only about 10 mi from the peak That’s within an 80 mi radius, but it can’t be seen because terrain in the way blocks it Parts of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea 8 times further away can be seen They lie at the limit of the Earth’s curvature, just before it bends the surface out of sight These spikes extending beyond the geometric horizon are caused by things beyond it that are tall enough to peek above Earth’s curvature In the case of Ben Nevis, this includes high elevation parts of Northern Ireland OK, enough about the surface and what it’s like close up, let’s go further away and see more This’ll be fun, but there’ll be a trade-off The further away you are from something, the smaller it will appear to be Moving away from Earth will make more area available to see, but that area will take up less of your field of view It can be difficult to illustrate this in a YouTube video, because your field of view, the shape and size of what you can see with you head still, just by moving your eyes around, is about 120° up and down and more than 180° horizontal A screen is just a window of that space—nowhere close to filling it, unless you get uncomfortably close To help us visualize large apparent sizes, let’s replace the spherical Earth with a flat disk that’s always the same distance from the observer This disk can be given an apparent size equal to Earth’s from any altitude, and the disk can contain on it everything that would fit within your horizons from any altitude OK, so, standing on the surface looking straight down, Earth will take up nearly a full 180° of your field of view With your arms extended straight out, parallel to Earth, your fingers will point to the edges of the planet: your horizon From 400 km up, about where the ISS orbits, 3% of the Earth’s surface is within your horizon, but the Earth will only take up about 140° of your vision Your fingers would point to Earth’s edges if you narrowed your arms’ angles, each by the width of two outstretched fists One fist is about 10° across at arm’s length You can move your eyes from edge to edge horizontally here, but you can’t quite take in the full width vertically But from more than twice this altitude, 1000 km away, Earth is only 120° across That’s one less fist width each This is perfect That fits within our narrower vertical field of view So, from 1000 km up (about 620 mi), you can just start to see Earth as a complete disk right in front of you at once However, only 7% of Earth fits within the horizon form up here Images of Earth taken by satellites this far up, like the Suomi NPP, look kinda weird I mean, North America doesn’t actually take up this much of the globe Earth’s 120° width has been compressed to fit in an image much narrower Compare Africa from its height to the famous blue marble picture taken from 45,000 km away The latter looks more realistic, like looking at a globe on your desk Geosynchronous satellites are about 35,000 km high From their altitude, 43.4%—nearly a whole half—of Earth’s surface is visible, but the Earth only takes up a meager 17° You could completely cover it with two outstretched palms That’s incredible But what about from the Moon? Well, from that far away, Earth is only about 2° across You could block it out with your outstretched thumb However, you can see more of Earth—you can see further around its curvature From the Moon, 49% of Earth’s surface is visible Just 49 If you want to see 50, half of Earth’s surface at once, you have to go even further away In fact, you have to go infinitely far away, which you can’t The most of a sphere you can see at once with your own eyes is just half But in the real world, way before you were actually infinitely far away, the amount of light reaching you from Earth’s surface would become so small and infrequent that you wouldn’t be able to see anything at all Stars, like our Sun, are much brighter and bigger than the Earth, but only a handful have, even with our best technology, been resolved as anything larger than just a single point From 1/1000 of a light-year away, our own Sun would look like every other star in the sky: a single point to the naked eye, only about as wide as R Doradus, the widest star in our sky From 91 light-years away, the point of our Sun would dim to a level undetectable by the naked eye It would disappear Most of the stars in the night sky you can see with your naked eye are further away than that, we can see them though because they’re brighter and bigger than our own Sun, which means if there’s life out there, living in systems around the stars we’ve marvelled at and written stories about since humanity began, chances are, we are not part of their constellations or folklore We’re a dark patch in the sky to them, an ignorable emptiness framing other stars, the ones they marvel at while not knowing we’re here, or that there is anything here And as always, thanks for watching! (Music reinforcing existential crisis) If you don’t follow me on Twitter or Instagram, pffft, you are missing out on a treasure trove of premium content, so check that out And, know this, I love you Oh, and this Vsauce shirt is only available to Curiosity Box subscribers This shirt comes in the latest box If you sign up now, you will get this shirt, so long as you sign up before it sells out The Curiosity Box is good for all brains It comes to your door, 4 times a year, full of science gear and toys that I want you to have, I want you to hold and learn from Also, a portion of the proceeds from every box goes to Alzheimer’s research I’m incredibly proud of it But what’s going on on this shirt? Well, it’s modular multiplication around a circle We have the numbers 1 to 40, around the outside of a circle, connected to their product with the number 4 So, 1 is connected to 4, 2 is connected to 8, 3 is connected to 12 and so on, even past 40 You could keep imagining the numbers continuing For instance, 1 can become 41, 2 can become 42 And this emerges—the Vsauce V Many other shapes can be made by using different multipliers or different numbers around the circle Mathologer has a fantastic video on this topic, which you should check out I have linked it down in the description Thank you for being curious and as always, thanks for watching!

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. So … this guy does not think that the earth is all that round,… I wish you people would make your mind up …. And really I need to stop watching this garbage… this is as bad as watching flat earthers theories… get in touch with this guy, and yes, he speaks english, but I doubt that you speak Romanian… or any other language as you can't even determine what measuring units to speak of….feet???? inches… so backwards… and primitive… The rest of humans in the world only walk on their feet… we do not use our feet for measure…. We us SI units "meters"…

  2. 24 people lying to humanity!?way is it then from 80,000 feet the horizon still appears flat at eye level? Im not a flat earther but neither am i a ball earther. As you correctly said, the higher you go the more you can see, and on a ball the horizon should continuously fall away the higher you go and yet it doesn’t

  3. Hi Michael. I think you need a correction at 1:55. 27, not 24, humans have seen the whole earth. Apollo 8,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17…9×3=27. Am I thinking this right? Thanks. Your videos are AWESOME!.

  4. Ahhhhhh! Epiphany! I got it. People, not missions. Jim Lovell for one…8,13. My bad. Thanks for the response. You rock! ?

  5. 23:00 lets say you have a telescope on the moon that can see infinity small parts of the sky, now point it at the edge of a black hole. Now with the right zoom and the right position you should be able to see the other side of the earth. this would only count for a black hole that would be next to the earth however. (obviously very theoretical and you can't see so infinity small, also it would be very distorted but it is the other side)

  6. Fun fact: if you took all the blood cells from one human and spread it out on football field you would be a psychopath and would be arrested

  7. 22:25 you sure about that? earth is supposed to be over 4X the size of the moon – so from the moon, shouldn't earth appear at least 4 times larger than what the moon appears from earth? same distance and a 1:4 ratio. you would need a really massive thumb to cover it. or am i missing something?

  8. Michael as a kid: playing rock paper scissors
    Michael: Rock
    Friend: Paper
    Friend: Paper beats rock!
    Michael: Or does it?
    Friend: Get Out!

  9. Reminded me of something when he started talking about how many atoms in a drop of water…….I have heard it said that if you took each atom in a grain of beach sand and increased the size of those atoms to the same size as a grain of sand…..the original grain of sand containing those sand-sized atoms would be approx 1 mile x 1 mile x 1 mile in size. I have always wondered how accurate that statement is… it even in the ball park? Hey Vsauce………you there? You read the comments, lol?

  10. Every thing we see is an illusion of history, just fact. Light hits the event bounces off goes through our optical lens spun around and the so called image via lightrays hits our retina which turns the light in chemical reaction and electrical signal and does a few more changes of electica/chemical before this message jumps across a gap/viod of space to our so called brain receptors and recognizes the so called image. So all is a 4th hand plus by the stage of transfer of a so called event, which really is an illusion, which in real time is history befor we see it. ……….. oops sorry I spoiled live screening of real events, cheers keep on making these videos.

  11. Hold up. Maybe I missed it in the video if it was mentioned, but atomic radii vary as well. Ignoring electromagnetic forces, you could pack substantially more hydrogen atoms into a lattice than you could, say, uranium atoms. You’d need to estimate the average composition of Earth’s surface, and average out the atomic radii of that composition before you could estimate how many atoms are on the surface.

  12. 09:54 For anybody wondering, I searched thru the maps and found out that the place is called “The Third Order Island” in Canada.

  13. the only way to see 50% of the earth is by having your eyes apart from eachother a little farther than the diameter of the earth

    depth perception

  14. I'm trying to find the video where at one point Michael talks ironically about books, like, "books are because kids can't have any control over the direction of the narrative and have to submit to the whims of the author" etc. I thought it was Juvanoia but it's not

  15. 04:58 Why still can't they go further and take a full view on the earth? Why 3% Maybe they don't have the technology??

  16. 05:52 Quindecillion atoms? How did you calculate that much?? What was the instrument you used to calculate that much attoms?

  17. 12:53 Since we are unable to find what's underneath of Bermuda Triangle how can we say that Marianas Trench is the deepest?

  18. Everybody went crazy around 1958 when they got up high enough to see the earth. I was there.
    Whatever they saw scared the crap out of them. So, to get everybody’s mind off the earth… the governments of the world created the really cool and Fascinating, “race to space “ LOL

  19. I wish he had told us how high Mt Mitchell in NC at 6600 ft would have to be to see the Atlantic Ocean. Mitchell is the highest peak in the eastern United States.

  20. i like how i can see all of Mt Rainier from over 100 miles away… oh and how you can use any mountain to prove theres no relative drop at all no convexity at all to earths surface.. this guy forgot to study land surveying how about get off your computer screen and demonstrate anything you say… oops you suck

  21. A lake in an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island in an ocean.


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