by Chet Raymo
“In a short story that was published posthumously in the New Yorker the inestimable Primo Levi meditated on the limits of language. The story was called “The Tranquil Star.” He writes "The star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous," and realizes immediately that the adjectives have failed him: ‘For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It's a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it's human. It doesn't go beyond what our senses tell us.
Until fairly recently in human history, there was nothing smaller than a scabies mite, writes Levi, and therefore no adjective to describe it. Nothing bigger than the sea or sky. Nothing hotter than fire. We can add modifiers: very big, very small, very hot. Or use adjectives of dubious superlativeness: enormous, colossal, extraordinary. But, really, these feeble stretchings of language don't take us very far in grasping the very, very, very extraordinarily diminutive or spectacularly colossal dimensions of atomic matter or cosmic space and time. We can overcome the limitations of language, Levi say, "only with a violent effort of the imagination.’
I spent more than forty years trying to find ways to violently stretch the imaginations of my students (and myself) to accommodate the dimensions of the universe revealed by science. I would project onto a huge screen a photograph of a firestorm on the Sun, then superimpose a scale-sized Earth, which fit comfortably inside a loop of solar fire. I would take the class into the College Quad here near Boston, where I had set up a basketball to represent the Sun, then gathered 100 feet away with a pinhead Earth; we walked together with our pin in the great annual journey of the Earth, and looked through a telescope at the marble-sized Jupiter than I had previously installed at the other end of the long Quad (the next closest star system would have been a couple of basketballs in Hawaii). We walked geologic timelines that took us from one end of the campus to the other.
In one of my Globe essays I used this analogy: ‘Imagine the human DNA as a strand of sewing thread. On this scale, the DNA in the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a typical human cell would be about 150 miles long, with about 600 nucleotide pairs per inch. That is, the DNA in a single cell is equivalent to 1000 spools of sewing thread, representing two copies of the genetic code. Take all that thread - the 1000 spools worth - and crumple it into 46 wads (the chromosomes). Stuff the wads into a shoe box (the cell nucleus) along with - oh, say enough chicken soup to fill the box. Toss the shoe box into a steamer trunk (the cell), and fill the rest of the trunk with more soup. Take the steamer trunk with its contents and shrink it down to an invisibly small object, smaller than the point of a pin. Multiply that tiny object by a trillion and you have the trillion cells of the human body, each with its full complement of DNA.’
Or this description from “Waking Zero”: ‘The track of the Prime Meridian across England from Peace Haven in the south to the mouth of the River Humber in the north is nearly 200 miles. If that distance is taken to represent the 13.7 billion year history of the universe, as we understand it today, then all of recorded human history is less than a single step. The entire story I have told in this book, from the Alexandrian astronomers and geographers to the present-day astronomers who launch telescopes into space, would fit neatly into a single footprint. If the 200 miles of the meridian track is taken to represent the distance to the most distant objects we observe with our telescopes, then a couple of steps would take us across the Milky Way Galaxy. A mote of dust from my shoe is large enough to contain not only our own solar system but many neighboring stars.’
But as hard as one tries, the scale of these things escape us. If one could truly comprehend what we are seeing when we look, say, at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo, which I have done my best to convey to myself and others in a dozen ways, it would surely shake to the core some of our most cherished beliefs. Just as our language is contrived on a human scale, so too are our gods.”