A useful feature of enormous cathedrals or religious icons is that they exercise and expand the imagination. They also give a different perspective; they flood the mind. Emanating a sense of other-worldliness, they can protect against the fear that our worries and problems are insurmountable.
That mindset is needed just to undertake such ambitious projects, and perhaps as a result they generate a like spirit in the eye of the beholder. If so, we benefit from an alchemy found also in art: as Norman Rockwell said, “somehow, people get out of a picture exactly what you put into it.” Anyone can criticise, but hewing a city out of a mountain requires something a little stronger than sarcasm.
And actually the mind is a very flexible thing – one moment it delves into nanometres, and the next, light years. To keep expanding, it needs stimulation: children raised by wolves show very little of even the basic human capacity, so even a genetic potential must be used in some way or lost. Stretching can take place along many axes, including a moral one and the same use it or lose it rule applies; when removed from any need to exercise generosity, the mind soon becomes completely selfish, as David Koch’s doorman reports… Koch being probably the richest man in New York, worth about 30 billion dollars.
We’ve lived one or two million years on Earth, and we achieved a lot in a short time – remember that electronics (and powered flight) all took birth, covered the world and even grew tedious in less than 100 years – but this Universe is a very old place. After 14 billion years there must be quite a disparity between our consciousness and that of older races. If we really want to be realists, and not just a big fish in a small pond, perspective is in order. Those differences could well be proportional to those encountered in the material world – so here’s one way to look at it.
Let’s say you’ve just bought a softball – a slightly oversized baseball – from Harrods and are standing outside Knightsbridge tube, up the road a bit on Sloane Street. In your outstretched hand is the ball, perhaps 9 cm in diameter. On top of it you notice a single fleck of London grit smaller than a millimetre (actually a little over 800 microns) like a small grain of sand. But wait, don’t just flick that fleck away! As The Sun newspaper might put it: for it could spell the end of all life on Earth.
As you guessed, the ball represents the sun and the speck, our Earth in proportion, resting on its surface. If the distance were to scale, that speck would be invisible to you, somewhere in lanes of traffic on the far side of the A4, almost 10 metres away. And yet it would still be warmed by the ball of fire you hold in your hand – all the heat the Earth ever used came from a circle about 20 km diameter on the Sun’s surface, an area of central London within the North and South Circulars. An area which you could walk across in an afternoon has shed enough energy to fuel four billion years of life, on a planet one and a half million kilometres distant, too far to even see.
Now imagine another sphere rising up out of the ground at your feet, its lower half still mostly buried beneath the pavement and its upper hemisphere exposed to the air, so that its equator’s nearest point rests lightly against your knuckles. This sphere will represent KY Cygni, the largest star that we know of, with a diameter of 3.9 billion km (2850 times that of our sun). Although that measurement is in some dispute due to a suspected red shift measuring error or something, a brisk walk will still give you a good idea.
Placing the softball on the ground, start walking one block up Knightsbridge towards Hyde Park Corner, crossing over Seville Street to the Park Tower Casino and another block to William Street (where the smaller star NML Cygni would end at 2.29 billion km diameter) then – pausing only to look back at the tiny white leather ball on the pavement outside Knightsbridge tube, with a single precious fleck resting on it – continuing past the Spaghetti House to yet another Harvey Nichols (where the massive star Canis Majoris’ diameter would end somewhere in the Summer Sale at 2.9 billion km) then passing the windows of Yvette, Emma Somerset, William Hill, Rachel Couture, Zibba, Sagi, Empiro and finally arriving at Harvie and Hudson, fine tailors to the gentry, at Wilton Place.
Look back and the ball has vanished from sight, along with the tiny speck resting on it, home to seven billion people. Whatever became of them, of their cities and tycoons, their debates, their millions of years of learning and building – who can say? Only you remain. You walked a quarter of a kilometre – but in reality, were the first human to cross the entire width of KY Cygni – the most gigantic star we know of.. so far!