We hear scientific statements all the time. The Sun is over one hundred times the size of the Earth; everything is composed of atoms; light is made up of massless particles called photons, which act like both a particle and a wave at the same time; the Earth is a sphere, etc.
We hear nonscientific statements all the time, too. Luke Skywalker probably died a virgin, the Enterprise travels multiple times the speed of light, Frodo destroyed the One Ring and saved Middle Earth, etc.
And I find myself grappling with this all the time. The events of Halo, Mass Effect, and the actual real world all try to occupy the same area of my brain — the part generally associated with the "yeah, that's what you hear all the time" sentiment. Do we really know the Earth is spherical? Do we really know how gargantuan the Sun is? Or are we just aware of the statement?
I remember sitting in my Astronomy class two semesters ago while my professor was lecturing about the Sun. He mentioned that, through a telescope, you can see spicules rising and falling all over the chromosphere, taking as long as ten minutes to reach their biggest size.
... and then he mentioned that they rose at around 20 kilometers per second, adding that after ten minutes — I love the way he worded it — the spicules "exceed the diameter of the Earth."
"Exceed the diameter of the Earth." When we look at the Sun, it looks kinda fuzzy on the edges, with each bit of fuzz increasing and decreasing over the span of several minutes. And the EARTH would fit inside it! The Earth, which is so massive compared to us that we can't even see its curvature, and it pales next to the incredible size of the Sun!
And then, as I glance up at the Sun, I comprehend, for the briefest of moments, the almost incomprehensible distance that must be between us. And just as quickly, that debilitating wonder fades into numbers. Nifty little tidbits that people might find interesting. You'd need seventy-five billion people standing head-to-toe to reach the Sun from here. Light, which travels around the Earth seven times a second, takes over eight minutes to get here from the Sun.
Facts. Just facts. Do we ever really understand them?
Or, maybe, this anti-climactic conversion from wonder to number is a defense mechanism against the night sky:
Hell, why limit ourselves just to astronomy? If we were appropriately overcome with wonder at everything that deserved it, we'd never get anything done. We'd be overwhelmed by everything we saw, then overwhelmed by the concept of vision, then overwhelmed by our awareness of our vision, then overwhelmed by our awareness of our awareness...
We'd all just sit around, mouthing the words "Holy shit" over and over and over.
We'd be overcome by the concept of atoms and molecules. We'd eat a bagel with cream cheese and be stupefied by the intricacy and complexity of all the molecular reactions that take place. We'd even be overcome by the concept of a bagel and cream cheese — overcome by the concept of foods specific to a certain culture.
Is there any field of human inquiry that wouldn't cripple us with fascination?