Making sense of the larger picture
By John Norgrove
30 September 2012
Advancing years bring with them novel experiences and fresh interests. This year it’s a hernia operation. In infancy my right ball wasn’t content with a life protected and nurtured safe in my lower abdomen and took a short trip to facilitate a new life full of risk and excitement within my scrotum. This unauthorised trip left a small weakness and, with the general slackening of late, my insides decided that it was time to make a break for it. Unacceptable behaviour, because within my body there are definite hierarchies, some bits are allowed excitement and some just have to keep their noses to the grindstone for the benefit of the whole.
Upstart ambitions were brought to a timely close one morning last month in Stornoway through three little holes, one for a movie camera, one for an air line and one for a probe controlled from afar by a lady on a play station. For me, it made a change to have the drugs responsible for my oblivion administered by a third party. My abiding memory was waking to hear a lady making beds and humming happily to herself, a lovely sound that reminded me of my granny and thus, of my childhood.
I digress. I had researched abdominal conditions and, having had time to ponder, started idly investigating sperm. The revelations that followed appeared to be loosely associated with minor aspergers syndrome. Each day I am able to produce sufficient sperm to comfortably fertilise every woman in Scotland. Clearly they are tiny. If they had teeth it would take 50, firmly biting onto the end of the tail of the sperm in front, to make a millimetre. I did the numbers. In my lifetime the sperm I’ve made would make a thin filament stretching from London to Glasgow. Every single one contained 23,000 genes detailing me. And only two have been successful; what a waste.
I read an article in the Economist. In and on each of our bodies we have ten times the number of bacteria living as we have cells. About a million million, give or take a couple either way. But before you shudder, just consider - they break down foods, including our mother’s milk, which we would be unable to absorb without their contribution and they maintain health by helping our immune system to attack interlopers. Many of the conditions that we suffer from such as obesity, diabetes, MS, asthma, heart disease, bowel cancer and eczema are associated with a disfunctional microbiome, sometimes caused by antibiotics. Our health, it appears, is dependant on theirs. We are not so much single organisms as biological spaceships.
From the tiny to the vast. Our planet orbits our sun/star every day, the light from which takes six minutes to reach us. That sun orbits the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, every 230 million years and, were light to be emitted by the black hole, it would take 27,000 years to get here. There are tens of billions of stars in our galaxy. There are maybe 250 billion galaxies. If you counted the number of grains of sand on all of the beaches in the world you find that there is something of the order of 50,000 stars for every grain.
Our lives are tiny peepholes into this vastness. At the same time we are supported by incredible complexity on a minute scale that is invisible to us. We have no alternative than to live on the scale immediately apparent but surely knowledge of the other should humble us. This would be no bad thing.
What’s all this to do with a charity? Not much.
But then again, if only we can start to appreciate the larger picture, maybe some of us can start to take actions which would prevent us from continuing to remain so small minded. Helping others might be a good start.