Illustration of a PDF about half the size of Germany superimposed onto a map of Europe
Image via Alexrk2öße_PDF_7.svg and reused under CC BY SA license.

We all know about the long running complaints about the limitations of PDF files, but one issue that I’ve never heard mentioned is that it is supposedly impossible to create a PDF that’s larger than 381 kilometers by 381 kilometers in size, about half the area of Germany. Thankfully, this limitation is a myth, which we now know due to an investigation by Alex Chan. Rather than settling for the conventional wisdom, Chan dug into the inner structure of PDFs and eventually was able to generate a PDF that is approximately 37 trillion light years square, which is larger than the entire universe. “Admittedly it’s mostly empty space, but so is the universe.”

The perfect format for an era of big data.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


4 Thoughts on "A PDF Bigger than the Universe"

I asked John Warnock (Adobe co-founder) once if there was a limit to how large a single character could be in PostScript, the PDF language. He thought for a few moments and said basically: yes, a lower case “r” can only be the size of Rhode Island.

Brings to mind Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” an extremely short story about how cartographers had perfected their science (and art) such that a map could depict its subject at 1:1.

Indeed. Also Steven Wright’s: “I have a map of the United States… Actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I hardly ever unroll it. People ask me where I live, and I say, ‘E6.”

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