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Contemplating The Universe… in A Browser

Pictures in books, planetarium models, even telescopes are pretty misleading when it comes to judging just how big the universe is. Are we doing ourselves a disservice by ignoring all the emptiness? I thought I would see if a computer screen could help make a map of a solar system that’s a bit more accurate.” —Josh Worth

Last week, we stumbled across “If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel: A tediously accurate scale model of the Solar System.” Also known as Josh Worth’s explanation of the universe, it was a project inspired by his five-year-old daughter. When he mentioned that he’d used Creative Cloud to design and build it, we jumped at the chance to hear more:

JoshWorth

So, Josh, it’s the Solar System… How did you decide where to start? The sun, of course! Even though the moon was the main point of reference for the scale, the big bright thing in the middle seemed to be the best place to start. Solar system maps often seem to show the Sun at the left so I wanted to build off a conceptual model that most people are familiar with.

And, when you were designing it, did you imagine an audience, in addition to your daughter? My daughter actually turned out to be more the inspiration, rather than the intended audience. I wanted it to be for curious people in general—more casual and approachable than something you might encounter at a science center.

Which Creative Cloud apps did you use? And which features proved most useful? I used Dreamweaver and Illustrator and a little bit of Photoshop.

I based the initial calculation of the size of the map on a moon diameter of 1 pixel, which came out to a width of about 1.7 million pixels. I wasn’t even sure a browser could handle content that wide so I started by defining a single div using Dreamweaver and it seemed to work. I also tried it as a single .gif in Photoshop—which would have technically worked, since the black space compresses down to a relatively small file size—but that would’ve made it a little more difficult to make quick edits to the text. And it seemed like cheating.

I used Illustrator CC for the typography that appears at the beginning. I wanted it to scale, and look crisp in the browser so I exported it as a .svg. I had to experiment with various settings in the SVG dialog and try it in various browsers before I eventually settled on a purely outlined version with no embedded fonts, since variations in font rendering kept messing with my character alignments. I doubt anyone would’ve noticed, but I’m careful about such things (and a bit fearful that typophiles will laugh at me).

Once the vector graphics were created, the rest of the work was done in Dreamweaver CC. The CSS Designer tool came in very handy when I couldn’t remember how to define a particular attribute. Code-hinting and instant syntax checking were also invaluable for someone like me who often puts brackets and semicolons in the wrong places. What really surprised me was that I could compose the copy right in Dreamweaver. Usually I need some kind of stripped-down text editor for writing, but toggling between code view and live view allowed me to see the sentences floating on a single line out there in space. It allowed me to get into a nice zone where I could contemplate the subject matter.

Tell us about some of your design decisions: We like that you chose a less, well, “scholarly” approach for your copy; why did you choose that style? For starters, I’m in no way an expert on astronomy, so I wanted to avoid any pretext of authority. Scientists are in the business of standardization and objectivity, which is great when you’re communicating straight data but I was more concerned with the emotional impact of all the emptiness in space, which seemed to call for a more personal interpretation of the data. I thought people might better relate if the information was coming from just another puny human contemplating his place in the universe.  Plus, the copy is more or less my usual writing style; I enjoy making light of heavy ideas and finding hidden depth in frivolous subjects.

How did you decide where to put the comments? The positive and negative space of the Solar System has an inherent emotional quality that I thought would be fun to try and match:  I started off  light where the territory is more familiar then used the bigger expanses of space for more expansive ideas; the thoughts got deeper as the distance became greater.

How did you decide on the color of space and the planets? I just went with the most obvious color associations, or at least the color that I felt was most indicative of each planet—Mars is red-orange, Neptune is blue-green and, of course, space is #000000.

Tell us about the design of the planet icons. I figured there needed to be some kind of shortcut in case the scrolling became unbearable. The astrological symbols seemed like a subtle way to incorporate that, since text links would have been too inviting. I found examples, through Wikipedia and a Google image search, to use as reference, then re-drew them in Illustrator to give them a uniform stroke width. I’m happy that the functionality is also decorative.

Why the distance counter? With just ruler ticks, movement (through space) wasn’t obvious enough and it got boring. I added the distance counter to help convey a sense of progress and motion; to make it work, I got some help from Kyle Murray (Krilnon), a member of the scripting forum on Kirupa.com. I eventually hope to make a mechanism that enables people to switch between different units of measurement

You said you learned a bit about Javascript, SVGs and viewports along the way? Anything else? I got a better sense of how the DOM (Document Object Model) works and gained a deep respect for front-end developers who have to deal with device and browser incompatibilities on a daily basis. (By any chance is Adobe working on a universal browser emulator that lets you preview your work in every possible browser on every platform without having to switch to a virtual machine? The world would be forever in your debt.)

What’s been the response? Are people finding it useful? Will there be a v2.0? And, most importantly, how did your daughter respond to it? I just think the coolest thing about being alive today is that so many people are in the business of designing and sharing mind-blowing ideas and work. I was just happy I could find a way to be a part of that. According to Google Analytics, I’ve had over one million visits since Colin Devroe of Spacebits.co first posted a link on Hacker News on March 4.

I’ve gotten tons of thoughtful feedback from Twitter users and website visitors. Astronomers, physicists, UX developers, and general users have chimed in with some great suggestions. A number of science teachers showed it to their students, a lot of parents said they liked sharing it with their kids, and a museum in the Netherlands has asked to use it in an exhibit (a number of lovely people have volunteered to translate the text). Multi-language support will be the main feature of the next version, along with a few other ideas that people suggested.

As for my daughter… She seemed to get it, though she got pretty antsy between Jupiter and Saturn. I think kids are actually better than adults at handling big ideas. For them, it’s all imagination anyway, and their brains are still elastic, so it’s fun to see just how far they can stretch them.

What’s your favorite bit of it? Prior to building the site I hadn’t spent much time thinking about the emptiness inside of atoms in the midst of the Solar System.

And, because we always want to know… How do you like working in Creative Cloud? I love Creative Cloud! I move between a Mac Pro desktop system and a MacBook Pro laptop at least once a day, so it’s great to know I have access to the latest versions of so many great apps wherever I go. The paradigm shift from individually licensed applications to a single, cloud-based, all-access account completely renovated the way I think about my workflow. Web designers can no longer get away with just doing static mockups in Photoshop and handing them off to coders, so I really like how Adobe keeps creating tools to help designers bridge that knowledge gap.