J. Robert King


The Terror of Scale

Once upon a time, the ancients believed there were the heavens (the atmosphere), the earth (the crust), and hell (the magma). They can be forgiven, because that is as far as their eyes could see.

We can see much farther. We cannot be forgiven for this world view.

That view was geocentric. The earth was in the middle, and other things were above or below it. But then came Galileo. He used a telescope of his own design to see things no one else had seen and to declare that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around.

His thought was considered heresy. How could something as huge as the earth revolve around something as small as the sun? God wouldn’t allow it.

Now we face a new Galilean revolution. We’re quite sure that things are complicated on the human level, but if you go down to the subatomic level, every proton is a proton, every neutron a neutron, every  electron an electron. And if you go up to the astronomical level, main sequence stars are all the same, as are blue giants and white dwarfs.

But strangeness isn’t limited to our scale. We think only humans can be unique and bizarre and individual, but atoms and stars must be all the same.

But they’re not. Let me be the first one to proclaim to astophysicists and quantum mechanists and psychologists and sociologists and everyone in between that the universe, on all levels at any scale, is infinitely complex.

Just as you could gather five hundred New Yorkers and come up with averages about them and yet fail to grasp their individuality, you could gather five hundred protons or neutrons or electrons and come up with averages about them and fail to grasp their individuality.

To assume that one fundamental particle is the same as any other is to assume that one American is the same as any other. To assume that one class M star is like any other is to assume that two people from New Jersey will act in the same way.

This is the conceit fed to us by science and mathematics. These are powerful disciplines–don’t mistake me–but they need to start looking at microphenomena and macrophenomena with the eye of the sociologist, who is self-consciously looking at averages rather than at absolutes.

I believe every proton is unique. I believe every blue giant is unique. I believe that every particle in the universe is unique, and we’ve only subscribed to this interchangeable-parts theory because, on the level of sociology, the average does prevail.

Why should it be that on our scale, everything is unique–from people to parking meters and omelets with cheese–but on scales below and above us, everything is uniform?

No. It’s all unique. Quantum physicists and astrophysicists should join sociologists in recognizing they are dealing with probabilities among uncertain items rather than certainties among knowns.

November 7th, 2009
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One Response to “The Terror of Scale”

  1. Anton Says:

    “The ancients believed there were the heavens (the atmosphere), the earth (the crust), and hell (the magma)”:though not quite in terms of places they could observe or drill/fly to. One might with the same accuracy state that alchemists’ elements of earth, water, air and fire displayed a profound understanding of nature, by their corresponding with the modern states of matter(solid, liquid, gas, plasma).

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