Size Matters

Small things are difficult to see. The smallest things are difficult even to imagine. We are missing life at its smallest, overlooking living things that came before us and make us possible. We need to look inside the box more appreciatively.

OPEN this terrific graphic from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah for a trip into the world of small. Click on the slider, slide it to the right, and zoom in past a sesame seed, past a skin cell, then a blood cell,  a bacterium, all the way down to viruses, molecules, and finally a carbon atom. It’s a wild trip. 

The zoom takes you down into the roots of life. It also takes you back in time. Back billions of years, from complex single-celled creatures and building blocks towards the not–alive viruses that may predate full reproductive life, back to one of the atoms that makes it all possible. Small came first. And life stayed small for a long time.

Then it got bigger. Humans are not only complex but relatively large. Elephants, whales, and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species of everything from dogs to Humans are not only complex but also relatively large. Elephants, whales and trees grow larger than we do, but hundreds of species, from cows to ordinary bushes, come in our size range. Up to a point and with exceptions, a bigger body survives longer.

Perhaps this trend underlies our perceptions of authority and even spirituality. The entities that we worship in any sense of that word are bigger than we are—not only gods but powerful people who seem ‘larger than life,’ or the universe itself, or Nature. They are the somethings–larger than we are often seeking. We grant even big trees and elephants a majesty that we don’t attribute to bushes and mice. Large things, if we think they are friendly, offer inclusion and protection.


But we don’t usually feel that warm about tiny things. That’s partly because we simply can’t see them. I wonder what it would be like if we were able to see individual bacteria, skin cells, the cells in a piece of fruit in the same way that we can easily see even individual blades of grass. Imagine seeing the single–celled creatures floating in the air and in the water and on our skin, on other skins, in our food, in our rooms. Would we feel enveloped by life in the way that we do when walking in a forest or watching flocks of birds? If we could see all those individual cells pumping, crawling, swimming, dividing, could we find our something–larger in those somethings–smaller?

4 thoughts on “Size Matters

  1. Wonderful post. Seems we get squeamish
    When we delve into creepy crawly bacteria
    And phantasmagoric viruses and microbes.
    Maybe if we bring the wonder you suggest to
    This microcosmic world in, on, and around us
    We might feel more connected to a web of interbeing. Jean Achterberg used cellular imagery for burn victims to reduce pain and increase new skin cell growth. The Simons pioneered imagery of blood cells for cancer patients. I did imagery work with cancer survivors. Two approaches are available. The first is accurate imagery from pictures and photos- even looking in microscope at moving blood cells and invasive tumors. The other is making up own imagery- say Leprechauns fighting giants or dancing chlorophyll atop angry red tumors. Both approaches worked equally well although personal imagery had more emotional resonance and appeared easier to do hence sligjtly more effective in recovery. I used clotting factor imagery for thoracic surgery and surgeon reported little bleeding therefore no need for autologous blood supply. Pollan’s new book on pychedelics supports some of my few experiences with LSD. The outdoors natural world teemed with energy visually. It was as if the green cells of trees and plants percolated
    From their lively microstructures. Continually dynamic. Breathing. Process. Those experiences transformed my connections to the living buzzing hive of energetic life in trees,
    People, birds, insects- all life. To know that we are made up of the same endless communities of microlife helps me feel part of a bigger dynamic fabric weaving ” me” into ” we” or ” all”. A note in a symphony. Fragile ego identities dissipate into a wider deeper richer
    Matrix. Pollan movingly relates how terminal patients who take pychedelics with medicsl guidance lose thrir fear of death and extinction.
    Guess what? We all will get a chance to try it out.

    • I love your phrasings about the connections—a web of interbeing, fragile egos dissipating into a wider matrix, and others. It’s difficult and ironic that language about such things comes from the brainy self/ego that we would like to move beyond at times. Words help until they don’t. Perhaps they do as well in religious writings about experiencing a wordless closeness to a deity.
      Your experiences with imagery with cancer patients and via LSD are fascinating. Thank you for the details and, again, the language. The advantage of personal imagery over actual pictures made sense to me, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps it made the process more meditative, more internal, a way of attending more lovingly to one’s present body and letting go of anxiety. We will, as you say, get our chance to find out.
      Thanks again.
      Brock

  2. Years ago there was a wonderful book titled “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher; it’s about economics on a human scale and focuses on the interconnection among all things, the natural world, our perceptions and choices.
    And, I’ll quote my favorite American writer, Henry James:
    “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind…it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.”
    “The Art of Fiction”

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