How to See—and Take Comfort in— ‘The Big Picture’

Realizing the grandeur of the known world can put things into a positive perspective for our daily lives.

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Posted in , Nov 19, 2021

The Big Picture

“Look at the big picture.” These are words that we often tell ourselves when we’re struggling through a hard time or stressed about everyday annoyances. We might even have uttered that phrase while getting vaccinations, boosters and concentrating daily on keeping our patience and perspective fueled and forward-looking.

If you are having a hard time finding “the big picture,” check out the astrobiologist Caleb Scharf’s new book, The Zoomable Universe. In it, Scharf takes readers on a journey from the largest structures of the known universe—imagine groups of galaxies—and zooms in to the smallest measurable particles, called the Planck length (less than a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a meter). 

In the process, Scharf uses the scientific concept of scale to offer the ultimate lesson in keeping the micro- and macro- challenges of our reality in perspective. 

“We’re operating as humans in a very, very narrow slice of what is out there,” Scharf said in an interview with Nautilus magazine.

For example, Scharf’s calculations revealed that all the stars of the Milky Way galaxy, if condensed together, could fit inside the volume of our solar system. Yet we (rightly) contemplate the Milky Way as a massive expanse. The emptiness between stars can inspire feelings of awe, an appreciation of the vastness of things. Yet we can also understand that if regarded from a different perspective, those same structures could fundamentally change our image of the known universe and our place in it.

Thinking about our lives, our experiences, our very being, in terms of scale—how we relate to the biggest of “big pictures” (and smallest, for that matter) can be a helpful practice to turn to when we feel overwhelmed, caught in the maelstrom of frustration, uncertainty and anxiety.

When we learn about the grandeur of scientific perspectives on scale, we can reorient our thinking, focusing on the opportunities we have to make meaning, to love and be loved, and to see ourselves as important parts of a whole—a complex, awe-inspiringly vast whole.

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