In The Field

AAS 2010: the Universe — older than you think

It’s no surprise that people do the best job conceptualizing the spatial and temporal scales of the everyday — the length of a car; the length of a work day — and have a much harder time with extreme scales, like the age of the universe.

But people are slightly worse at understanding extreme scales of time than space, according to Aaron Price of Tufts University, who gave a neat astronomy education talk on Wednesday.

In a survey of more than 400 undergraduates, Price found that students consistently underestimated big time scales and overestimated the duration of the quickest phenomena — worse than they did for spatial scales. But in both situations, Price says, the mind is trying to condense the two extremes towards something more manageable in the middle — which suggests that mental number lines are inherently logarithmic.

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