Joel Klebanoff: Stuff & Nonsense

To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

Narrow Mindedness

I contend that most of us are narrow minded.

As I wrote the previous sentence I had a vision of the fingers of the majority of the few people who come here immediately pouncing on their keyboards to pound out an exceptionally fervent agreement or disagreement with that statement. Or maybe they’ll get defensive and pen a personal repudiation.

Prove me wrong. Please wait until you finish reading this post before spouting your response.

First, notice that I said, “narrow minded,” not “narrow-minded.” I left out the hyphen intentionally. The reason for the missing hyphen is that I’m not talking about narrow-mindedness, i.e. the unwillingness to listen to or tolerate other people’s views. What I am talking about here is my belief that our minds are comfortable contemplating only a very narrow band of most physical scales.

What nonsensical crap am I on about now? Well, consider just a few examples.

Distance

Imagine that a reviewer whose judgment you trust gave a stellar recommendation for a restaurant you haven’t visited. The restaurant’s menu is well within your budget and it serves your favorite type of food, but you decide not to go because it’s too far from your home.

You might eliminate a possible vacation spot for the same reason, but you’d probably be willing to travel farther to get away for a few days, or a week or two, than to have a nice meal.

We’re used to thinking in those sorts of distances, but distances that are much more than what we can personally experience in our everyday (or vacationing) lives tend to be little more than just numbers to most of us.

The point that I’m so inelegantly and insufficiently making is that we’re comfortable with thinking about distances of a few miles (or kilometers for those of us of the metric persuasion), but thoughts of longer distances are too much for our brains to reflect on in a way that makes them seem the least bit tangible to most of us.

Hm. That didn’t make it any more elegant or sufficient, did it? Sorry about that.

OK, I hear you. “A few miles” exaggerated it a little on the low end. According to United Airlines, the distance between New York and Paris is, 3,649 miles. Looking at a word map or a globe we have a general sense of how far that is relative to the circumference of Earth. (Although, how meaningful is the circumference of Earth to us?) If we’re fortunate enough to be able to spend time in both of those cities and fly between them at some point in our lives, and we don’t nap on the way, we also have an idea of how long a flight that is.

United, which flies the flight nonstop, says the distance between Newark, New Jersey, USA and Tokyo, Japan is 6,732 miles. I live in Toronto and have never crossed the Pacific (so far; I hope to correct that one day), but if you’re a world traveller you might have a sense of how far that is in terms that you can relate to, i.e. travel time.

(Full disclosure: Apart from being a member of Air Canada’s frequent flier program, which, along with United, is a member of Star Alliance, I don’t have any connection with United Airlines. I used United in the above examples only because it was the first airline I found that listed the miles of each flight when I did a flight search.)

Distances much greater than that are, for the most part, just numbers to us. For example, consider this: The Milky Way—only our own galaxy, not the whole universe consisting of maybe more than 100-billion galaxies—is about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers wide. That’s about 62,137,119,000,000,000,000,000 miles.

Some clever journalist might try to put that distance in terms we can relate to by telling us that’s about 9,230,113,000,000,000,000 trips between New York and Tokyo. Um, really? We can relate to that? Does that have any palpable meaning for you? It doesn’t for me.

All I know is that I couldn’t complete all of that travel within my lifetime. I’d be short by several millennia. But think of the frequent flier miles I’d get!

So, on astronomical scales, most of us—possibly excluding astronomers—are comfortable thinking about only relatively minute distances.

The same is true on the short end of the scale. If we can walk somewhere within a few minutes, most of us think of that as close. Or, to use another example, for people living in most of Canada, anything less than a couple of centimetres (we spell it centimetres, not centimeters), which is almost an inch, is only a light dusting of snow.

OK. Now consider this. To our minds, a human hair is exceptionally narrow. That’s why we refer to almost no distance at all as being a hair’s breadth. Most of us can’t conceptualize anything much narrower than that.

Yet, if Wikipedia is accurate (I can’t guarantee that it is), then a typical human hair is about 1-million carbon atoms wide. The point is that the width of an atom is inconceivable to most of us. I could look up and give you a number with a large negative exponent that would be the diameter of, for example, a hydrogen atom, but it would have no more tangible meaning for most of you than it does for me, which is none at all.

Mass

And it’s not just distances.

Think about weights or, more accurately, mass. I weigh about 165 pounds under Earth’s gravity at Toronto’s altitude. At a little less than 5’ 6” tall, I should weigh a less than that for optimal health, and my weight varies over time, but at time of writing, that’s roughly what it is.

I have a general impression (which is probably not accurate) of what a 300-pound person of my height would look like. And I can conceive of them dying at an early age from heart disease, diabetes complications, cancers or other diseases in which obesity is implicated.

But, what would 1,000 pounds look like? I haven’t the foggiest.

Yet Earth, has a mass of almost 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms. That’s about 13,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. (I might have one extra or one too few zeroes. I’m not good at that sort of thing.)

Then there is the small end of the scale. Like I said, I weigh about 165 pounds. According to an article in The Guardian newspaper, one of the 20 amazing facts about the human body (I would have thought there were way more than 20) is that the average adult human body contains about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.

You do the arithmetic to figure out how little a atom weighs if I have an average adult human body. As I mentioned two paragraphs ago, I’m no good at getting the decimal place (or negative exponents) right with division of that scale. Suffice it to say, your bathroom scale doesn’t offer anywhere close to the accuracy needed to measure the mass of an atom. In fact, you’d need a great many zeros to describe the orders of magnitude that your scale would be short of the necessary accuracy.

Time

Time is another scale on which we are narrow minded. We say, “just a second,” but rarely mean just a second. If we live 80 years, we’re doing well in most countries. Recorded history spans thousands of years, but single digits of thousands. Any longer than that, and the best the most of us can come up with in terms of relating to those timeframes is, “eons ago,” but, in truth, that doesn’t mean much to us.

And, consider the short end of the time scale. Most people would probably say that they see what’s on the computer screen they are reading as soon as it’s displayed. For the vast majority of human purposes, they would be close enough to correct to not fault them for thinking that. But, in fact, they are wrong.

Light has a finite speed: 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum, although it’s a bit sluggish when travelling through air. So, in fact, the light from your screen takes a fraction of a second to reach your eyes. True, it’s such an infinitesimal fraction of a second that, for your purposes, it might as well be zero, but it’s not.

Is it possible to conceptualize how short a time that is in any concrete way? Probably not. The time period would be long over before your brain even began to conceptualize it.

And those are just three scales. There are more, such as temperature, acceleration, force and others. Most of us feel comfortable concretely conceptualizing (if that’s not an oxymoron) only a very narrow band of those scales. But because I’ve probably bored you to tears already and chased too many people away with this long and pedantic post, I’ll stop here.

So, you might well ask, what’s the point? What are the philosophical meanings and implications of our narrow mindedness? Or are there no deeper meanings or implications whatsoever? And why did I start uttering this nonsense in the first place?

Damned if I know. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please leave them in a comment here. A few of the billions upon billions of neurons and synapses in enquiring minds want to know.

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Categorised as: philosophy


20 Comments

  1. A mind-boggling post, Joel. I’m definitely narrow minded in terms of distance. In Atlanta, you either live inside or outside the I-285 perimeter (ITP vs OTP). When I was single and dating, OTP was pretty much a dealbreaker, as I lived ITP and OTP was like driving to a foreign country. Then, my current hubby came along and changed all that. As far as light goes, it’s waves of phase with on-off intervals…I love thinking about that. Our minds conveniently ignore the off intervals.

    • In Toronto we have the 416 and 905 regions. 416 is the area code for the city proper and 905 is the area code for the area surrounding Toronto. That doesn’t quite work anymore because both 416 and 905 now have other area codes overlaid on them, but it’s still referred to as the 905 region. It takes a lot to get me to travel to the 905 region. In fact, there’s only a small portion of the 416 area in which I’m comfortable.

      Light is an amazing phenomenon. It travels at, well, the speed of light. It’s speed is constant in a vacuum, even relative to different objects moving at different speeds. And it has the properties of both a particle and a wave. It’s mind boggling for most sub-Einstein brains, and that very much includes mine.

  2. umashankar says:

    The post is a treasure, Joel. I’ll read it again sometime.
    I guess we are by nature bound to limit ourselves to a narrow range. The serpent in the bush may be deadlier than the aliens a decathilion miles away. That said, and it may sound cliched, narrow is a relative term.

    • Thanks!

      I don’t see how we could not be limited to a relatively (relative to all there is) narrow range. Our brains have a finite number of neurons and synapses. That limits the total amount of knowledge we can store in our heads and how much we can conceptualize.

  3. Agit8r says:

    I have noticed that people perceive distance much differently now than they did before the summer of 2008 (when gasoline went over $4 a gallon)

  4. M. Catlett says:

    A lot of possible things to respond to this (nicely done and fairly-smacking-in-the-head) post, but I’ll refrain and just offer this:

    Sometimes, in my more imaginative moments, I envision my life as a spike on a graph and then zoom out, or back, to see that in the eternity of time and vastness of perspective the spike vanishes into a smooth horizon line.

  5. I’m a big believer in limits and not overextending myself. One breath at a time, one step at a time, one task at a time, one moment at a time. Seems to me that’s the best any of us can do, and it’s enough

    • An excellent philosophy. And I agree that it’s the best we can do. I doubt that (with the possible exception of tasks) an alternative is humanly possible (as much as some people would like to make it otherwise). I don’t know about you, but I can’t take two breaths at once, two steps at once or two moments at once. Even with tasks, when we multitask, are we really doing two (or more) tasks at once or just alternating between them rapidly?

  6. Classic Ruby says:

    As a psych major, not only do we study thoughts and feelings and abnormal behavior, but we often study the brain and perception. So the first thought that remained after reading your post was that, while light takes time to travel to our eye, the process that happens before we have that visual picture also doesn’t happen instantaneously…. It’s a process, and our brains are designed in such a way to sort of fill any minute blank spaces for us so we don’t become disoriented.

    And then you have the concept of weight and distance, which we also study (and sound, and brightness, and color will all apply to what I’m saying here as well). But basically there is only a finite scale that we can really perceive in any meaningful way as humans, and the reason why is that our brains evolve to maximize our fitness in our environment. Which is why, for example, we can’t hear dog whistles… in our EEA (which basically just means the environment we were in when we evolved these traits) bring able to hear frequencies that high weren’t helpful to us staying alive so eventually we lost the ability to do so naturally.

    I think this applies to everything we can perceive: if it wouldn’t really be productive for us, better for us to lose interest or avoid it…I mean, imagine 10,000 years ago prior to any form of technology, deciding you were going to get to Paris… on your camel and then in a make shift canoe… you’d be dead in days, if not weeks, which means your genes wouldn’t survive.

    But as technology advances, it makes certain concepts more attainable, and we begin to contemplate them. A few hundred years ago, only great travelers would travel from continent to continent… now, how many millions of people do each year, even frequently? I think we’d see the same thing with space travel in a few hundred years if things advance enough… People can just hop on a spaceship to go visit their friends in the mars space station for a week… And OMG I totally will get 2.7 hundred quadrillion space miles out of it!

    OK sorry. My geek is over now. But on the non dork side I will say that I live in Meadowvale, Mississauga, and yet I commute each day to Hamilton (an hour one way, unless i take the paid highway) for school, my doctors office is downtown Toronto (about an hour and a half one way) and I see her every two weeks, I have friends in Newmarket and Ajax (an hour or two) that I see often enough, and my best friends live in bramalea (45 minutes), who I see several times a week. I guess growing up in the area I did that is new and has little to offer beyond daily living needs, I’m very used to having to travel distances on a regular basis. That and the fact that about once a month at least my family would take a 5 hour one way day trips to Erie Pennsylvania to go shopping.

    But I think living in Toronto changes people, because it’s like once you move there, especially downtown, you just never leave. EVERYTHING is right at your fingertips, in a 10 minute subway ride.

    OK sorry for the long dork ramble.. great post!

    • Ruby, thanks for your comment and for calling it a great post. Don’t apologize for the “long dork ramble.” I love long dork rambles. Wait. That sounded dirty. I didn’t mean it that way.

      I’ve lived in “Toronto” all my life. I put Toronto in quotes because I grew up in what was then North York, which, at the time, was part of Metropolitan Toronto, but not the city proper.

      For the vast majority of my life (except for a brief period of insanity when I lived in Scarborough), I’ve lived in what is and what was always the City of Toronto. I own a car. It’s more of a safety blanket than a mode of transportation. It’s now almost 13 years old and it has about 31,000 kilometres on it. I’ve had a mechanic tell me he thought there must be something wrong with my odometer. I had to tell him that if there is, it’s probably over-reporting the distance I’ve driven. Like you said, pretty much everything I need is walking distance. (My doctor is almost literally around the corner.) And, like you say, there’s the subway for other things.

      • Classic Ruby says:

        Yeah, especially when you consider what the word dork actually means. But, c’mon, we all know you meant it that way… *suggestive wink*

        Wow. I’m pretty sure I put about double that on my car annually. And you have to take into consideration the fact that each year, my “annual” really only includes about 6-8 months of functionality… Sooooooo… the life of a suburber is just… Very expensive on gas and oil changes lol.

        I don’t know how you could live in the big city… I love Mississauga, it’s quiet and peaceful, while still being close and convenient enough to get to anything east or west. One go train ride and I’m in Downtown Toronto in 45 minutes, max. Oh, and Mississauga has free parking everywhere. And parking lots. And drive thru everything on every corner lol.

        • Re knowing how I really meant it: OK. You caught me. I’ve always thought that rubies were among the most brilliant of gems.

          I don’t know how you could live in Mississauga. It’s too quiet and peaceful; I’d miss the hustle and bustle of the big city. And if you want to go into Downtown Toronto you’ve got to haul yourself on a train and spend 45 minutes getting there. And then there are all of those damned parking lots and drive-thrus blotting what should be a vibrant, highly urban landscape. ;)

  7. Before I go to your point, let me point out that all atoms don’t weigh the same (even atoms of the SAME element) so, even if our scale had the fidelity you describe, it wouldn’t do any good unless we knew the exact percentage of each individual isotope of element used in each molecule (and protein molecules, like, say, the building blocks of DNA, are notoriously huge and complex). Hope that helps. ;)

    Note also that your point is actually quite pertinent and reflects much of the reason science always evolves. Our data is limited by what we can detect reliably (as well as what we can imagine/extrapolate from that data). As our measurements because more accurate, so did our understanding of science and the processes behind science. For detecting light, we can actually detect those tiny lengths of time with instruments, but they are generally beyond most of us to directly detect, much like a sampling rate on a detector. If I’m monitoring voltage once a second (60 Hz) and a voltage spike of say 25 ms occurs between samples, I literally have no way of knowing unless it does something like fry my processor. There are always limitations, even to equipment.

    As for the rest, I’m unabashedly narrow minded. Not only cannot I not wrap my head around infinity, many astronomical and quantum units are equally unfathomable. I have wrapped my head around some pretty extreme notions like the speed of orbital debris (~8 km/s) and meteoroids (as fast as 70 km/s), though movie makers have notably not.

    But wrapping my head around it doesn’t make me interested in travel. Travel takes time and effort, the first I have in short supply, the second I just don’t care for. Which is why, though I’ve lived within 30 mi of Houston for 25 years, I know the area I live and work in very well and always ALWAYS get lost if I have to go to downtown Houston.

    • I suspect that thanks, at least in part, to your background as literally a rocket scientist that you’re comfortable in wrapping your head around a much wider range of some of these scales than most of the rest of us.

  8. umashankar says:

    Joel, that was an engrossing read. Coming straight to your conclusion in a narrow minded way —as opposed to narrow-minded way— it is my humble opinion that we are forced by nature to be narrow minded for primordial reasons like survival. Say, if I am an antler, a predator closer to me is deadlier than the one lurking a couple of hundred miles away.

    • I agree that nature forces us to limit what we know and think about. We don’t have enough neurons and synapses to hold in our brains knowledge of everything there is to know. Nor do we have enough brain processing power to contemplate it all within our lifetimes even if we did possess that knowledge. And, yes, survival tops our hierarchy of needs and wants (thank you, Mr. Maslow) and must be satisfied first. However, if we’ve built an environment that satisfactorily protects us from our nearby predators (as is generally the case for humans in most urban environments), contemplating the predators, prey and all other beings, objects and phenomena farther afield is not such a terrible way to spend our time.

  9. Witty Badger says:

    Sometimes math and figures are too abstract for us to wrap our minds around. We have no basis for understanding! Good one, Joel.

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