How Big Am I, Really?

This poem examines relative sizes of things: starting from the size of a human hand, and enlarging the area of interest by one hundred times in each direction at every iteration. It doesn't take many steps at all to go from the size of a man's hand to an area large enough to contain our Local Group of galaxies--that collection of galaxies in which our own Milky Way is but one not-too-outstanding member.

This poem was first published in the July/August 1998 issue of Quantum Magazine.

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How Big Am I, Really?
Copyright 1997 David Arns
When sheepishly apologizing to a friend I'd wronged,
He said a phrase that got me started thinking:
A simple little phrase that I had heard my whole life long,
But so profound, I stood agape and blinking.

He said, "It takes a big man to admit that he is wrong,"
And it struck me: what, exactly, does that mean?
How big is "big?" And to what grouping does that word belong?
Then in my mind I saw the following scene:

We still were shaking hands, and I beheld the hand I shook,
Four inches wide it was in breadth of beam.
"That's not real big," I thought, "But let's just see how it would look
A hundred times as large..." Thus went my dream.

A hundred times as long and a hundred times as wide,
A decimeter square would roughly be
The size of half a tennis court: ten meters on a side
(A fact well-known by Andre Agassi).

A hundred times as big again, and what would be in view?
A square that's several city blocks in size,
A kilometer square containing buildings old and new,
Plus streets and homes, delightful to the eyes.

And stepping back another step, one hundred times as large,
A fair-sized city fits within its border.
And now we're getting large enough, our rash and headlong charge
Into "bigness" becomes quite an arduous order.

Two orders more of magnitude, arriving at ten thousand
Kilometers on a side, and we've unfurled
A square that, when it's stretched out to the limits it allows and
Flattened out, it almost covers up our world.

With one more step, receding back, enlarged a hundred times,
("Stay with me, please," you hear me importune),
The more we see, you'll notice, as our viewpoint ever climbs:
We've just contained the orbit of the moon.

We step again: the square is five light-minutes on each side;
The sun, along with Mercury and Venus
Are now within our field of view; our stimulating ride
Leaves a hundred billion meters in between us.

Now, what would happen if we took another backward step?
Why, we could see th' entire solar system!
(You moan, "Must we continue on this ride?" My answer's "Yep!
When folks hang back, I offer to assist 'em.")

One more step back, and now we see the emptiness around:
Our solar system's just a tiny dot
Within a square where almost nothing else is to be found
Thirty-eight light-days of next to naught!

Again receding back along our logarithmic line,
And Barnard's Star is now in evidence,
And Proxima Centauri and, of course, Wolf 359
(Where our battle with the Borg was quite intense).

Another step: our square is now a thousand light-years broad:
Look! Myriad stars, and clusters of the same!
And nebulas, appearing painted by the hand of God,
With beauty like a multi-colored flame.

The next step, our penultimate: we see the Milky Way,
A hundred thousand light-years, stem to stern.
Alight with stellar objects in a dazzling array
Apparently unmoving and eterne.

And now, at last, we take our final weary step arrears:
We see ten million light-years at a glance;
I think the point's been driven home--at least it so appears--
By our Local Group within this great expanse.

And suddenly, that phrase comes back: about how "big" a man
It takes for him to say that he was wrong--
That "bigness" seems quite silly now; he's surely smaller than
If he'd been less offensive all along.

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