If you expanded an atom to the size of a football field, the nucleus of an atom would be the size of a mere fly. Despite the depiction we see in school science textbooks, most of the atom is empty space. And yet, tables, brick walls and saucepans appear quite solid to us. Where does all of that empty space disappear?
We are unable to grasp things on an atomic scale because our brains and bodies aren’t built to understand a world at that scale. But our limitation doesn’t stop there.
Representations of the solar system in our science textbooks are not drawn to scale. The planets are jammed close to each other and the sun is represented as a tiny ball in the middle. Much like an atom, the solar system is also mostly empty space, which doesn’t lend itself well to representation. I once tried to draw the distances in the Solar System to scale, but you’ll agree that I did an admirably poor job.
We are medium scale creatures built to understand medium scale dimensions. We can all grasp what it means for me to walk a kilometer in 15 minutes. But our brains are unable to wrap our heads around how a beam of light can traverse 300,000 km in a single second.
Those limitations might be obvious. However, for the same reasons, our brains are also unable to comprehend several other nuances. Our empathy – our ability to understand where another person comes from – is also limited by not having lived that person’s life – our own experiences have hard-wired us to merely understand experiences that are similar to our own. Our evolutionary conditioning has also limited our ability to live in a post industrial world that has very little resemblance to the Saharan grasslands where our species was cradled.
While we often marvel at what our brains are capable of, it has its limitations. Understanding those limitations forms the bedrock of humility, of which the human species has always had a deficit.