Top of the Globe

Nothing grows in Barrow, Alaska. It’s like being on another planet.

I remember standing at the Arctic Ocean, looking out over the ice floes. We walked along a desolate shore, covered in smooth, black stones. I thought, “I’m standing at the top of the globe.” The North Pole was just 1122 nautical miles away, about the same distance as between Boston and Minneapolis. I put a couple stones in my pocket.

Awe is a difficult experience to describe. People tend to respond, “Cool.”

I felt somewhat the same thing the first time I used Google Earth. I decided to see if the house in Connecticut where I grew up was still there. I typed in the address and immediately zoomed up, arced across several states and flew down so quickly that I almost got dizzy.

We’re standing on a planet – one of those things we learned about in science. They were tiny spheres bouncing on a mobile, made out of styrofoam and painted different colors. We used pipecleaners to make the rings of Saturn. That was our galaxy.

But we’re not bobbing on a coat-hanger. We’re hurtling through space. If I spin a globe, I can simulate the earth’s rotation. But since I can’t feel it, and since the rest of the planets are still just painted styrofoam balls, I don’t really believe it.

I know it’s true. I know it – I just rarely feel it.

I don’t know why any of this matters; it’s just a different perspective on what I already know. Billions of people live on this planet, but you wouldn’t know it looking down from space.

And I don’t think about it as I drive to work, or stop at the store, or sit in my living room typing on my laptop. But when I go up to the park and tromp through the snow to get some exercise, I gaze up at the sky and imagine looking down at myself, a tiny ant wandering in circles.

It’s a strange feeling. Realizing that I’m so tiny and insignificant ought to make me feel fragile. Instead, I think how fragile this planet is, and I am awed.

Time Is Slowing Down

A few months after we got our first microwave, I realized that something had happened to me. The microwave was counting down three minutes, the time it took to boil a cup of water for tea. As I watched the digital display measure the seconds, I was impatiently casting about for something to occupy me, but there was nothing to do. The paper hadn’t arrived yet, the dishes were all done, and it was too early to call anyone.

When did seconds become so slow? When I was a child, my father taught me to count seconds: one-one thousand, two-one thousand… Back then, we had to slow seconds down. We boiled water on a stove, in a kettle that whistled when the water came to a boil. That whistle always seemed to interrupt me just when I was getting absorbed in something. Time zipped by.

Microwave ovens have slowed down time.

I am not making this up. Scientists have observed the same thing, though they have not yet made the connection to appliances. They postulate (a word that roughly means ‘guess’ if you’re a scientist) that it has to do with string theory, accelerating expansion, and something called dark energy. (Dark energy is also why small children keep getting out of bed at night. Parents have no dark energy; children have a lot.) More


There are only sixteen of us, if you believe the Myers-Briggsians. Or nine, if you’re a numerologist (not including 11 and 22). Or twelve, for those who subscribe to astrology. There are many other ways to count, but this writer is not familiar with all of them.

The sad sum of all this is that no matter how desperately we want to believe we’re unique, we’re not.

It has been said that there are three types of mathematicians: those who can count, and those who can’t. I am the third type. I can count, but I distrust the answer.

License plates, room numbers, book numbers, dates, tickets — all of these things are small peeks into the great infinity. Most of the time, though, I don’t understand how they add up, or what I ought to do about them. So far I have never based any major decisions on those random numerical occurrences, but it gives me something to think about when things aren’t going well.

Our house number reduces to the number seven, an auspicious number for mystics and hermits. Our last house was eight, the number of success. We were poor while living in that house. In our present home, we are far from mystical. Perhaps we are not obeying the vibrations the universe is sending out to us.

While not mystical myself, I have respect for things that don’t easily tally up. The basic physical laws of the universe could be summarized on a few index cards and neatly filed in a drawer. But there must be more cards out there waiting to be catalogued, more drawers waiting to be filled.

The universe must vibrate. There are infinite ways to count it.

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