Friday, January 12, 2018

WHAT’S UP?...OR DOWN? – Breaking the Bounds of Vertical Perception

I was reminded today, in a news report about some newly discovered deep-sea organism, that the deepest part of Planet Earth's oceans is the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific about halfway between New Guinea and Japan. There the depth has been measured at just over 36,000 feet.

That got me thinking of how inept we human beings are, accustomed as we are to experiencing and gauging horizontal distances, at fully comprehending vertical distance.

PHOTO: National Geographic

Sure, we all know about those monumental NASA expeditions into earth orbit, then to the moon, Mars, and now deep space. And we know that people keep venturing to ever-deeper parts of the ocean—think the resting place of the fabled Titanic, at 12,400 feet.

But can we really grasp how high is high and how deep is deep?

           We set her on auto pilot and sit back
           with a good novel.

You may know how I like to play with perspective in the way I look at Nature and life. Well, one way of appreciating vertical reach is to imagine the one instrument of speed and distance we are most accustomed to—the automobile—and turn the axis against which we measure its motion from horizontal to vertical.

So picture this imaginary vehicle that can act just like our own family car—we can get in, start it up, take off and easily accelerate to highway speed. Except this vehicle can only go up or down. Oh, and, magically, it can cut through salt water as effortlessly as our real, horizontal car can through air.

Got the idea? OK, now back to that deep trench in the western Pacific. We’re on a ship, floating right over it. Our amazing vertical water car is suspended over the side by a crane and we’re at the wheel. On command, the crane releases us and we floor it, straight down.

In ten or twelve seconds, we hit 60 miles an hour. At that speed, you’d think we'd want to keep an eye out for the bottom pretty soon; after all, the seafloor is right down there. Nope. We can just keep the pedal to the metal, at highway speed, relax and listen to two average-length songs* on Spotify—almost 7 minutes—before we near our destination.

Once we slow down and nudge the bottom, we turn right around and head back up. Only this time, we’ll traverse the distance from that deepest ocean floor right through the ocean's surface and all the way up to the elevation of earth’s highest point above sea level, the summit of Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet, over 1 1/4 miles closer to sea level than the Challenger Deep).

This time, we set her on auto pilot and sit back with a good novel. If it's a page-turner we can devour 20 or 25 pages before this mile-a-minute leg of our trip is done.

          This “super-sense” is among the few 
          tools we possess for appreciating our 
          place and scale in the world.


Nature holds so many wonders we can barely appreciate for their true scale—that is, until we shift our vantage point, our way of thinking. Part of the challenge is that the world is so immense, and we are so pitifully small. Another is that, by the time we get used to thinking a certain way about something for decades, we become inured to the degree and scale of its spectacle.

How sad and unnecessary that so many of us, subject to the constraints of schedules and responsibilities—and maybe a little wear and tear on our faculties—lose our child-like sense of wonder.

The good news is that it's easy to reclaim it. Get outdoors, preferably with kids, explore, play and take time to simply be fully present with Nature. This is the medium in which human senses were meant to function best. Not just the orthodox five senses, but many others whose existence is just beginning to be recognized.

One that’s especially pertinent to this post is proprioception, the sense of the relative position of one’s body parts and the effort being exerted in moving them. It’s this “super-sense,” together with the vestibular system of the inner ear, and, of course, our better-known senses, that helps us appreciate our place and scale in the world.

Failing to nurture and grow all those senses, including fully comprehending and being moved by vertical space, is to squander a precious gift. Especially if we give them up in a bad deal with the little digital devil residing in all those glowing screens in our lives.

* Song length / A Journal of Musical Things


Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting One Man's Wonder! I'd love to hear your comments on this post or my site in general.
And please stay in touch by clicking on "Subscribe" below.