Friday, January 30, 2015

inferiority complex and the overview effect

I woke up this morning with a thought. A thought that I’d never had before; this is despite the fact that I’ve often read about, talked about and written about. The thought?

Well, the realization that the universe is as small in scale as it is large. That is, there are objects in the universe that are unimaginably small as there are objects that are unimaginably large.

Space programs since the 1960’s reaffirmed the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, "hanging in the void", shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. And we’ve read about the overview effect, which is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.

At the same time, some of us have an inferiority complex about being smaller than average. Most people don’t like being just average, but being less than average is even worse. Astronomers like to take advantage, by pointing out that the universe is really, really big — much bigger than these below-average-sized persons.

But we’re not so small if we compare ourselves to small things. For instance, we are much, much bigger than a bacterium, which is so small you need to look through a microscope to find it; and by the time you do find it, it has probably split in half and turned into two even smaller bacteria.

Now we often say the universe is a large, large place. But we don’t seem to ever say the universe is a really small place. If we take the height of an average person to be 1.7 x 100 meters, or roughly 1.7 meters, Gomez’s Hamburger is 1016 meters away; the Milky Way galaxy 1021 meters and the observable universe 1026 meters.

Equally, a white blood cell is 10-5 big (.0001) big, the Hepatitis B Virus is 10-8 meters and the smallest object we know of include the Neutrino at 10-24 meters and more esoteric objects such as strings, and the quantum foam coming in at 10-36 meters.

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