Posted by: Robin | November 1, 2008

Size Matters

Recently I began reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series at my so-in-law Chris’ recommendation. I’d never read any Stephen King because I don’t do horror, so I was pretty curious not only to read his epic foray into fantasy, but to take his measure as a writer. For the most part that is immaterial to this blog except as a jumping off point. In the first novel of the series The Gunslinger a conversation takes place near the end between two of the main characters about the hero’s quest. Walter tells Roland, “The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size.” He then proceeds to make his argument not only for the vastness and incomprehensible size of the universe, but for the infinity of the tiny and unseeable. The PBS specials I’d watched on string theory came roaring back as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s Wind at the Door, in which her character Meg explores the microscopic vastness of the inner world of the mitochondria, the power plant of a cell. All three novels of L’Engle’s original Wrinkle in Time trilogy explore size in space and time, and I’m sure she isn’t alone among science fiction writers. My “Astonomy Picture of the Day” adventures have been slowly planting the seeds of vastness in my mind for the sudden flowering epiphany of truth in King’s statement. As far as mysteries that boggle the human mind, this is big.

So the epiphany inspired me to do something I’ve been meaning to do since I began my “Astronomy of the Day” travels, read my son’s old basic astronomy textbook, to give context to what I am seeing daily. In the first ten minutes of reading the authors addressed the issue of size, trying to make comprensible the abstractness of such huge distances. Here was the example that changed the whole trajectory of my thoughts: If one were to count to a billion, reciting one number per second sixteen hours a day (to allow for sleep the other eight), it would take fifty years.

Suddenly I was no longer skipping among the stars or subatomic structures. My mind came to a screeching halt with the thought, “Our national debt is now in the trillions!”

How can that be fixed? Numbers at the best of times are a struggle for me, but attach them to dollar signs and the bewilderment is staggering. My only exposure to economics was a unit of my high school course Problems of Democracy that was long ago blocked from memory. I can’t begin to guess how to correct what is going wrong in our economy, and it isn’t looking like the Federal Reserve or political experts do either, but this kind of debt is dangerous and gives enormous power to the lenders. Having just cleared all our credit card debt and seeing the huge difference that makes in our autonomy and the choices available to us, I can’t imagine how we are progressively tying our hands to the point of helplessness by the continued borrowing and spending. Why is the National Debt not being discussed more in addressing the economic morass we are in? Reading the astronomy textbook may have made my understanding of vast numbers more manageable, but it has also scared me in a fundamental way about our economy as nothing else in the last few months has. And worse I have no idea what should be done. As Walter says to Roland, “Size defeats us.” Please let that not always be true.



  1. Here’s another analogy to get an idea of how much a trillion is.

    It takes about 12 days for a million seconds to pass, about the time it takes for a long shuttle mission to do what it needs to do.

    A billion seconds is about 31 years, the time it would take to build a large city.

    A trillion seconds is almost 31,689 years, more than four times longer than all of recorded human history starting with the first clay tablets of the Sumerians.

  2. It has always struck me that we as humans live in this tiny space between the infinitely large and the infinitely small

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