Saturday, 26 September 2009

Does size matter?

You know how people often say that they love looking up at the night sky, or standing on a cliff looking out at a huge, rough sea because it makes them feel so small? Well, it just doesn’t work for me. I actually don’t feel small when I look at things that are unimaginably larger than me, and I don’t think that I’m any more egocentric than the next human being, but that may be just a personal opinion.

Also, I cannot understand why people would want to feel small when faced with astronomically large vistas or phenomena. Most people seem to actually enjoy the sensation of utter insignificance when they compare themselves to these things. I don’t, but I also don’t feel particularly large either. I like to feel the exact size that I am, nomatter what I am compared to in the material world.

Maybe that is the explanation - I just don’t bother to compare the size of myself to a volcano, say. What is the point of that? I get frightened when walking through a herd of cows in a field, but that is simply because I worked out long ago that cows usually weigh about 3/4ths of a ton, and I only weigh about 14 stone. There is a rationality attached to that based on a comparison I made between myself and cattle when I was very young, and - judging by the record amount of people that were killed or injured by cows protecting their young in Britain this year - it makes perfect sense. I haven’t bothered to consciously make the comparison again in my adulthood. The awe felt by a lot of adolescent girls for horses is a different matter, but I haven’t heard of anyone placing themselves in a herd of cattle simply to enjoy the sensation of being overwhelmed. Having said that, there have been quite a few mentally unbalanced individuals who have done similar things, quite often involving lions, but that too is a different matter.

When I look through a telescope at a star-studded sky, I actually begin to feel enormous - or more precisely, a fun-sized chip off an enormous block. I suppose that must be related to empathy, though whether or not it is egocentric to feel empathic toward the rest of the visible universe can be looked at from two different stand-points. We think of actors as having colossal egos because they seem to nervelessly enjoy standing in front of thousands of people and talking, when most of us would curl up, stammer, go red in the face and generally wish that people would stop looking at us. Well I think I know who is the most egocentric - it’s the nervous one, the non professional who believes that everyone is looking at him/her, and not the character they are supposed to be portraying. Actors are supposed to be able to empty themselves of their own persona in order to allow room for someone else’s to enter. That is their job, and they cannot - by definition - be ego-maniacs if they do their job properly. Sir Lawrence Olivier was said to be so good at it that, by the time he hit the big-time, there was not much of the original man left, and when he was not working, he became a sort of shell - a half man that wasn’t there. It can’t have been much fun for his children.

After dinner speakers are employed to be larger-than-life versions of themselves, and the best ones are paid very large amounts of money. That too is their job, and - like pop stars - if they came over all unnecessary, they would not get the bookings. There is almost no more an excruciating experience than watching someone die on stage - unless, of course, it is Tommy Cooper, who incorporated it into his act - the last time, quite literally.

It’s the same with telescopes. If you are going to gaze into deep space in order to make yourself feel insignificant, make sure you get the biggest telescope you can handle or afford. Because the quality of a telescope is measured by the resolution of the image and not the magnification, the amount of light they gather is critical to it’s performance, and the bigger the scope, the more light it will gather. When this light passes through or reflects off high-quality optics, then it is really doing it’s job. The difference between the sort of cheap scope which is usually on sale at Christmas (and is advertised with slogans like “An amazing 150X Magnification!”), and a ‘professional’ one with a magnification of, say 40X, is the resolution. This becomes immediately apparent when you first look down it, even if you have never used a good one. If you lowered one of the telescopes that are housed on top of the mountain in Hawaii, and trained it at a board propped up on the horizon 50 miles away, it would be easily able to resolve two drawing-pins stuck into the board, four inches apart. Wether or not your eyes could is something else, but that’s where the software comes in.

Did you like the way I seamlessly shifted from one topic to an apparently unrelated one just then? Did it remind you of Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’, when some God-botherer starts off on a certain subject and leaves it until almost the last moment to bring up the subject of Jesus?

Well, I did say that John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ was one of my favourite books.

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