My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. - J. B. S. Haldane
On my hikes I enjoy looking at boulders, cliffs, and mountains. Something about their large scale appeals to me, and I've wondered why this is true. Thinking about the fact that my favorite hikes lead to panoramic views, that I'm fascinated by maps, and that I love to look down at the ground from airplanes, I've concluded that large scales and broad views appeal to me because they give me a bigger perspective on where I've been, where I am, and where I might go from here.
I consider the perspectives I've found on time, space, and life to be crucial to my understanding of the world. What I've read about cosmology, evolution, relativity and quantum theory has given me an awareness of what's beyond what I can see. The fact that space itself is expanding, the theory that time began at the Big Bang, and the fact that nobody really understands some things like gravity that we experience constantly–things like these fill me with awe at what we know and an awareness of how much we don't know.
Powers of Ten is a visual demonstration of the relative scales of what we know about in nature. The scale at which we normally live is nearer to the small end of the range than to the larger end, and we're usually only aware of things on the scale from the smallest things we can see up to the whole earth—about 9 orders of magnitude. But there are 16 orders of magnitude larger than that in this illustration, and about 14 orders of magnitude smaller than what we're normally aware of.
Timelines are also fascinating to me. Logarithmic timeline of the universe is another powers of 10 illustration, this one of time rather than space.
The Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society has built an Atlas of the Human Journey, an interactive web site that maps the major migrations of the ancestors of modern humans, based on genetic markers. The site requires some patience to navigate, but it's fascinating to see the sequence of migrations unfold, along with the changes in ice sheets and the shapes of land masses over the last 60,000 years. As I explored it, I was interested to notice that agriculture as a way of life is less than 10,000 years old--less than 1/20th of the known lifetime of our species.
In 2002 I did a little genealogical research and happened to find one line of Jeanne's family tree that goes back to the crusades. When I printed it out, I was struck by the fact that the Protestant Reformation occurred halfway across the chart, and the beginning of this country was only a dozen generations ago. All of recorded history is only two or three hundred generations. Much of what we take for granted as a normal part of life is relatively new—not just computers and airplanes, but even institutions like national governments and the major religions.
Perspectives like these raise questions in my mind about where we're going as a species. It's difficult to even imagine what life might be like a mere hundred years from now, when some of my grandchildren may still be living, not to mention a thousand years from now. It also concerns me when I see how rapidly we're destroying our natural environment. As I flew into Miami for the first time, I was struck by the extent of the developed area around it. I thought about how little of the area would have been developed just a hundred years ago, and wondered when we're going to stop expanding our cities.
If we don't change our direction we're likely to get where we're headed. - ancient Chinese proverb
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