Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The perils of anthropomorphism


When I was a kid one of the most popular shows on the radio (and later television) was Twenty Questions. Twenty questions to guess the secret thing: animal, vegetable, or mineral. As I recall, the first question was often "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

I can't remember the last time I saw a breadbox. I just looked at an episode of the show on YouTube and it seems as long ago and far away as breadboxes. Nevertheless, I was thinking "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" when I was watching the ant in yesterday's post.

It would take a lot of those ants to fill a breadbox, more than 100 million by my rough calculation. One human baby would do the trick. The volume of a breadbox is within the same order of magnitude as a human, more or less half way between the largest and smallest things we know about. More than 10 billion billion breadboxes to fill the oceans outside my window.

So here we are suspended in a universe between the very big and the very small, allowed to ask an unlimited number of questions to figure out what it is. Whether our "midway" position is a limitation of our perceptions or the perspicacity of our questions, we may never know. What we do know is that the furthest bounds of knowledge are wreathed in shadow.

Is our big bang (assuming it withstands further scrutiny) merely a bubble in an infinite and eternal froth of universes? Are the quarks not nearly as "elementary" as we suppose them to be? I don't know. You don't know. It behooves us to ponder now and then how many ants fit in a breadbox, and how many breadboxes fit in the sea, stretching our imaginations away from the ancient and natural tendency to see ourselves reflected at each end of the spectrum, breadboxes all the way up and all the way down.