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My daughter, Susie, is a scant five feet tall. She went to the University of North Carolina at the same time as six-foot-six-inch Michael Jordan. One day, they both got in an empty dorm elevator together. The door closed; one looked up, one looked down and they both spontaneously started laughing. 

Scale is important.

And no matter how many times you’ve seen Monet’s waterlilies in books, on computer screens or in slide shows, you are not prepared for the wallop they have in person at the Orangerie. They spread out across your vision from one peripheral side to the other.

Scale matters.

In 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts photographed the “Blue Marble” Earth from roughly 18,000 miles, giving us an image of the wet, watery ball we live on. It looks small and vulnerable — and it is, in the immensity of space. But it also gives a misleading impression of the scale of the planet.

Scientists may measure scale with numbers and exponents, but each of us, personally, can only conceptualize size and distance against our bodies and senses. Who of us can tell the immediate difference between 1011 and 1110? Which is the larger number? But between your fingers, you can tell which of two grains of sand is larger, merely by feel. 

In 2008, I drove from Phoenix, Ariz. to Reidsville, N.C., over a weekend, a trip of about 2,200 miles, or roughly 1/11th of the circumference of the globe. I left after work on a Friday and pulled in to Reidsville on Monday morning. I was hauling ass, as they say. On the Sunday, I drove 900 miles. The trip was exhausting, but gave me a palpable sense of the size of the world. I could feel it, because I drove over it.

(And, by the way, the world is not flat: I could see the great grain elevators of the Midwest rise from the curved horizon before me and, after I passed, watch them settle, like the setting sun, behind me.)

In 1989, I flew from Phoenix to South Africa, a flight that spent some 40 hours in the air. The popular image is that if you dig straight down in your back yard in America, you eventually hit China, but this isn’t so. Directly opposite Phoenix on the Great Blue Marble is a spot in the Indian Ocean just off the coast of South Africa. 

So my flight was literally to the antipodes. (It took so long because in that apartheid era, I had to take an especially roundabout route to my destination: Phoenix to Philadelphia, changing flights to Frankfurt, Germany, changing again to a South Africa Airlines flight that, because of opposition to apartheid, was not permitted to overfly most other nations in Africa, and so, had to fly out over the Atlantic, refuel in the Azores, and cruise over the water all the way to Namibia before finally landing in Johannesburg.) It took Lindbergh 33 hours to cross just the Atlantic.

Such a trip really gives you a sense of the scale of the planet.

Before air travel, however, such a voyage would take months, not hours, providing an even more body-interior feel for the distance. In 1967, I took a trans-Atlantic ocean liner to Europe, and the monotony of the unchanging sea, day to day, made the earth seem even larger. My trip took four days and a bit. It took Columbus more than two months to cross the Atlantic.

The point I am making with all this travel tale, is that scale, whether looking at Picasso’s Guernica, or watching the odometer while driving from Bangor to Seattle, is that scale is felt in the body, it is measured by human proportions. As Protagoras recognized in the Fifth Century BC, “Man is the measure of all things.”

When we look out at the night sky and realize we are at the bottom of a seemingly infinite and dark well, we can be awed, but we cannot feel in our bodies the inestimable size of the cosmos.

Yes, we can speak of it in abstractions. We can point out that Voyager I, now in interstellar space, is traveling at a speed of 17,000 miles per second — which would take about a second and a half to circle the Earth — and will cover 325 million miles in a year. Yet, at that speed, it would take it  some 45 thousand years to reach the nearest star. There is no way you can process that scale in your paltry human skin. We can talk in big words, like billions and trillions, but outside of abstract mathematical numbers, can you actually feel the difference between a billion miles and a trillion? They are meaningless words. You might as accurately call it a “gazillion.”

Do not misunderstand me. Humans have been amazing at understanding the cosmos intellectually. We can calculate the orbit of a satellite within what seems like a few inches. But I am not talking here about abstract reasoning.

There is a limit to the human imagination. We can calculate overwhelming numbers, but in terms of body knowledge — being able to physically conceptualize — such numbers turn into little more than words. 

We can use the math for engineering and for science, but we must recognize that our puny minds cannot get their arms around such boggling numbers. We are limited by the evolution of our human brains, which grew to process the daily income of sense data. We can feel the road under us as we speed along the interstate; we cannot feel the gap between Earth and Alpha Centauri. We can name it, but we cannot feel it. 

All trans-human scales are metamorphosed into a single size: Infinite, or might-as-well-be. It is what we feel when we turn our eyes up toward Orion or the Milky Way.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Spirit of the Senses website Oct. 2, 2018

Mercator map

Topo mapAn ideology is like a road map. It contains a schematized version of the world. But, it is always a simplified and distorted version. It may show the roads, or be covered with circles of topographic tree rings, or be great blotches of geological information. But it by necessity ignores a great deal of information to clarify some single small aspect.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a conservative sees a different world from a liberal; one is looking at highways and the other is looking at landforms. But this is not simply binary: The libertarian has a different map from a neocon, the religious right has yet another map, and the fiscal conservative yet another — and all call themselves, in one sense or another, conservative. The same variety can be found at every point in the political spectrum. Just consider how many spatting socialist parties join in war against each other.

geological mapAnd all of this is only the plethora of maps held by political enthusiasts. Politics, after all, is only one tiny corner of human consideration. Look at the range of literary theory, from Formalism through Structuralism to Post-structuralism, from deconstruction to neo-Marxian criticism. Each of them has its own roadmap and each ignores any tiny detail that might confuse the clarity of their ideology.

Or religion. No, let’s narrow it to Christianity. Or further, let’s narrow it to Protestant Christianity with its Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists — oh, heck, lets just look at Baptists. There are Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, African-American Baptists, Landmarkism, Missionary Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, Progressive Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Sovereign Grace Baptists, Southern Baptists and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestination Baptists. And that only scratches the surface. Each is separated from the others by a map that emphasizes some single detail that serves as sufficient cause for a schism from some parent group, whose roadmap leads directly to Hell.

Treasure Island map

Treasure Island map

(This is the sticking point for Pascal’s wager: That if you don’t believe in God and he exists, you go to eternal damnation; if you do believe and there turns out not to be a God, then you are no worse off than if you didn’t believe. Therefore, said Pascal, the smart money is on believing: You have a one-in-four chance of salvation; the atheist belief has a certainty of annihilation. The fly in the ointment is this proliferation of sects. Which God do you place your wager upon? Choose wrong and, whoosh, you slide down the chute to perdition. That one-in-four bet now looks more like the state lottery.)

Mercator projection

Mercator projection

The world map most of us remember from the walls of our schoolrooms was the Mercator map, which attempted to show the oceans most accurately to aid navigation, while distorting the landmasses to accommodate that. We have become so used to the Mercator look, that any other map looks somehow “wrong.” If you take the Peters map, for instance, it looks highly ideological, as if it’s trying to make a propaganda point. Of course, it is, but so was the Mercator map. Where is Europe? Why shouldn’t China be at the center?

Gall-Peters projection

Gall-Peters projection

Try to take the globe and flatten it into a map and you are forced to distort. No way around it. The problem is that a map is not an accurate depiction of reality, but a schema, a simplified, diagrammatic visual representation.

Goode homolosine projection

Goode homolosine projection

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

But even life size, the map is still flat when the world is all bumpy, and Wright’s lifesize map is still on the human scale.

Norwegian coastlineConsider the fractal nature of the Norwegian coast (as designed by Slartibartfast). How many miles of coastline is there in Norway? Depends entirely on how accurate you want to be. If you look at it as the crow flies, it is something like a thousand miles. But there are all those fjords and inlets. Add them to the calculation and you wind up with an accepted length of 25,000 miles — enough to circle the globe. But that doesn’t count the islands. Add those and you are up to 80,000 miles. But let’s lower the fractal scale: The usual numbers are calculated in a rather crude way. The fjords might be considered, but how about the river mouths leading to the fjords, the creeks feeding the rivers, the constant wavering of shoreline zigging and zagging. Look at it not at a mere human scale, but on the microscopic, and you realize that you can re-add-up the length of the coast of Norway to something like infinity. Reality is that infinity. Existence is overwhelming. So forgive me if I snort at your conservative roadmap, or your Marxist theory of history, or your prescriptive grammar.

It is no different from any other version of reality, any ideology, religion, artistic convention or psychological theory. Reality is maimed.

And so, ideology is always mistaken. Always. It cannot be otherwise.

road mapEvery ideology is based on a synoptic description of the world, a limited model of the way things are: a map. That map, whether it is the right-wing Mercator of nationalism, privatized economy, traditional marriage and organized religion, or the left-wing Peters of fair distribution of wealth, cultural tolerance, the evils of a class system and mistrust of big business – that model is always too simplistic, too limited, too rationalized, too coherent, to encompass the vast, unwieldy, incoherent, and imponderable experience of being alive.

Our lives, among the swirling trillions of stars, the millions of species of plant and animal, in the midst of an atmosphere ruled by chaos theory, with the billions of synapses in each of the billions of brains that populate this ball of dirt, are too complex to fit into any ideology. Is the standard-bearer of Progressivism a millionaire? Is the Christian conservative a secret frottagist or Republican pedophile? Is the classical scholar a fan of hip-hop?  Does the Andean priest speak Church Latin? We should never be surprised.

No ideology can grasp the shifting variety of the world: When we look for the particle, we find the wave; when we look for the wave, we find the particle.