Getting A Better Sense of Scale…

Spiral Arms of NGC 5775

Spiral Arms of NGC 5775 (Photo credit: LLacertae)

When it comes to matters of size and age, especially that of the immensity of the universe, never put too much faith in your own intuitions, too much stock in your own incredulity. Trying to fit the universe into a human sense of scale will almost always come up short of reality.

We humans begin life with a distorted sense of scale, as we are not intuitively talented to handle the world of the very large nor that the very small, the world of galaxy clusters down to the world of quarks. For those, we are better served by the tools of mathematics, of Einsteinian Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

No, we are much more suited to the middle-realm of everyday existence, that readily accessible on a planetary surface to our immediate reach and perception. We have only within the last few centuries extended that to a much wider breadth than the tens of thousands of years of our (pre-)history prior.

This is only anecdotal, but when I was a kid just newly resident in my home city, my sense of scale, of distance, was seriously inaccurate. The world seemed enormously larger than it does now, and has correspondingly shrunk as I’ve aged: It at first seemed an adventure just to travel downtown to the toy store.

Going up north for the holidays seemed an unthinkable journey, almost too far away to contemplate, though as an adult, I can at least “contemplate the depths of interstellar space…” as neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has put it, even if I cannot literally visualize it with my mind’s eye.

My intuitions of scale, of time, and of…things…are less prone to fooling me now than then. I now know to watch out for occasional muck-ups, since the universe is often reluctant to conform to them.

The universe doesn’t give a crap what I can immediately imagine, understand, or believe. It is what it is.

My intuitions, expectations, and incredulity can still fool me if I let them. But I’m better than I was about seven years ago when I had the nebulous idea that some arguments were better than others. Then, I had no real understanding of logical fallacies or the psychology of belief, two things in particular I’m still an amateur about.

But through these years sevenfold and onward, I’m a bit more skilled an amateur than I was.

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