We are really bad at understanding big numbers. Numeracy training may get us a bit beyond one-two-three-many but not much. The problem is that quantity matters to lots of issues in life. My favourite popular science book is a Bill Bryson‘s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Obviously he’s a great storyteller, and his explanations of what we currently (think we) know dressed in the life histories of the often positively weird, eccentric, disturbed scientists that came up with it are hugely entertaining. That all contributes to my appreciation, but it is not the main reason. What he manages to do like no other is to describe the mind-boggling quantities involved in nearly everything in comprehensible images. For me, nothing brings the wonder of the universe better to life than a visceral grasp of those quantities. A couple of examples that I took from his teacher’s guide:
- “If you shrink the Earth to the size of a desktop globe, the atmosphere would be about the thickness of a couple of coats of varnish.”
- Stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of Earth. All of complex life is in one hand, and “in a single stroke with a nail file you could eradicate human history.”
Now, for a very different example of how visualization (because that is what Bryson’s word magic does for you) can change your perspective: have a look at this Syrian refugees campaign website of the greens in the European parliament.