I am currently reading (for the third or fourth time in as many years) Bill Bryson's quite magnificent book "A Short History of Nearly Everything". If you haven't read it, I recommend it in the strongest terms; not only because Mr B. is, in my opinion (and while I understand the limitations of my influence over you, I don't think I'm alone in this view) one of the most accessible and intentionally hilarious writers out there but also because - just as importantly in this case - the book is a wonderful collection of information and in an ideal world would be required reading for every high school or secondary school student. It is - much like myself - starting to show its age now (it was published around 2001/2002 and so scientific advances have overtaken it one or two areas of detail) but remains (unlike myself) relevant and hugely entertaining.
As I was happily perusing a chapter (I won't go into all the details, but let's just say that I was sitting down in a very small room of the house), the staggering sense of scale of our world was once again brought home to me. From the unimaginable, ridiculous, really rather incredible smallness of atoms (and they are by no means the smallest things, after all) to the equally unimaginable enormity of what we perceive to be the universe, the old Douglas Adams idea of the TPV ("Total Perspective Vortex") begins to make sense. Indeed, trying to imagine 'unimaginable' ( I guess that term actually means that while we CAN imagine something, it's not likely to be very accurate) tiny or large scales is a technique I used on occasion when I was working as a hypnotist. Engaging that much neurology to try to make sense of such things tends to be an effective way to induce a trance state (basically a neurological distraction of particular effect). Basically, as a much funnier and more skilled man than I (Adams) once said; "Space is big. Really Big.", and the atomic level is stupidly small - try imagining half a million atoms hiding behind the width of a human hair as an example. See what I mean? I just lost three hours thinking about that...unless of course I was abducted and probed...but best not think too long about that.
The other thing which makes my toes curl involuntarily is the fact that these atoms mostly consist of nothing. In other words, if you take the model that someone has painted in the picture above, if we could see the nucleus of the atom on that scale, it is highly probable that on that scale, the circulating electrons would be so far away as to be out of sight, even if they were proportionately that size (which, apparently, is not the case). When I found this out it disturbed me a little because I had grown up thinking that such diagrams were accurate; not so, however. Now I have come to terms with this relatively new knowledge, thanks to the passage of time, the dawning of tiny amounts of wisdom, and a lack of intelligence on my part. I am happier in my unimaginable ignorance; content, even, which is probably a little bit sad.
HOWEVER (Drum roll)!!!! If I concern myself with the scale of the world to which I can more easily relate (and no, we're not talking about hot dogs), there IS something in the context of scale which ruffles my metaphorical feathers.
I was born and brought up in the UK (as I think I've mentioned a couple of million times before), but now I live in North America, on the relatively gun-free side of the border with the USA (not Mexico, then). As a not very surprising result, the vast majority of educational/science programming on TV, radio and online tends to be North American. No problem so far - except...and here is comes...the quite ridiculous obsession with dumbing-down science is starting to induce TV-kicking levels of frustration within me. Fortunately, I have had the good sense (my one good idea for the year) to move the TV so far out of kicking range as to render it safe from my rage.
The most prevalent (and illustrative) example I can present to you is the CONSTANT use of two units of measure to describe very large things; namely the 'Statue of Liberty' and the 'Football Field' units. Things are almost universally measured in the following terms "...that's ***** times the height of the statue of Liberty!" or "...imagine that, more than ***** football fields long!". Now, even allowing for the fact that these units are less than universal, I have yet to hear if the 'S.O.L' unit refers to the statue alone, or the statue and plinth, or the statue, plinth and base. So the unit of measurement is undefined, and that annoys me. the idea that the public is incapable of appreciating how big something is unless referred to in such terms is also rather tedious, but to pick two things and assume that EVERYONE has experienced their respective scales is more annoying. To then use them as standard units of height and length across the fricken board in educational programmes is even MORE annoying...I'm waiting for the day when the statue or football field is the subject of just such a comparison: "The statue, of course, is exactly the same height as...itself...", or "Believe it or not, but we've checked this out: the football field is exactly the same length as a football field!".
Enough with the dumbing-down of information: let's allow natural selection do its thing - if someone doesn't get 'it' they don't get 'it' and probably don't need to, and probably will never put 'it' to use if it's dumbed-down for them.
For the record: the full height of the S.O.L - just the figure itself - is 0.503 of the length of a football field. With the base, plinth and all, it's a whopping 1.016 times the length of a football field...in height...um...yeah. So...there's something to...ah...think about...