Friday, August 26, 2011


I was reading a certain xkcd comic talking about how large the clouds in the sky are and yet how difficult it is for us as humans to recognize their size. In the comic, the feat was accomplished through a marvelous use of technology, utilizing HD cameras kept 100 feet apart to achieve the depth perception needed to appreciate the true scale of these giants floating above us.

Well, that started cranking some of my now aged and beleaguered neurons into remembering an epiphany I had as a small child.

I was four years old and it was my first night out, literally. I had until then never experienced the night's sky, the stars, or the moon in all their splendor for any more than a glimpse, courtesy of getting tucked into bed each night. Well, this particular night was different; I was ushered into a car and, as per usual, wasn't told anything. Not being told anything actually had its advantages -- it meant I grew savvy at eavesdropping, though listening at that age generally led to more confusion than clarity. From bits of conversation, I gleaned that this was a long road trip. I disliked confined spaces, and I especially disliked confined spaces that so nauseatingly hurtled down the monotonous roads.

It was late, I was tired, but I was too excited to sleep. The night was so mysterious. My nose was practically pressed against the car window as I tried to soak in the strange new world. A bright glowing creature seemed to be hovering and following us, though. At first I wondered if this was some new insect or animal I hadn't known. None of the adults seemed to pay it any heed. It behaved very strangely for an insect, though. It seemed to follow and keep pace however fast we went, yet if we stopped, so did it and it seemed to keep its distance. It didn't seem like an insect; if it were interested, why did it not fly straight into the car? If it were not interested, why did it follow? Why did it not chase any other cars; why was it fixated on us? Moreover, insects fly forward, and thus would chase us from behind; this creature seemed just as content to fly sideways, hovering outside my side window. Then, something strange happened; we turned at an intersection and this creature rather than hovering to our side was hovering in front of us! This was either some devilishly clever creature trying to play tricks on me, or, as was made increasingly likely as we turned at more intersections, it was a fixture in the sky!

I marveled at it. It seemed so near and tangible like a firefly but now so very distant. I trained my gaze to probe it, to study it. It was the most inspiring object I had seen in that short little life I led. After some time we meandered through the small streets and intersections and hit a large, straight, road. The glowing orb was still outside. The car picked up speed, the pavement whizzed by in a blur, the grass across the shoulder of the road sped by as well. The trees in a distance danced along, and even the faint outlines of mountains in the extreme distance crept. The glowing ball stood still -- it stood perfectly still! This was astonishing to me. A tree was large, and a mountain gigantic; what did that say about this glowing ball? Well, it was no ball at all, it was a planet!

And for the next four years I believed the moon was the largest object in the universe, bigger than Earth or anything else that had ever existed.

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