I remember this Star Trek episode: Wink of an Eye. It was the first series, with the real Kirk and the real Spock. Aliens who live on a different time speed take over the ship. The Enterprise crew does not see the aliens, just hear an insect-like buzzing. And the camera switches to the time speed of the invaders, now they move at normal speed and the Enterprise crew does not seem to move at all. I was very excited about the concept of different speeds, with beings in the one system not being able to comprehend the other system. A great theme that is too!
As a child I was fascinated by things that go slower than the eye can see: I would take multiple timed pictures of growing plants and then compare them, one after the other. I would plant a young oak tree in our garden and measure it every year. These were processes I could not see with my bare eye. But these were all still processes I could observe in my lifetime. They are of human measure. And I could, and can, grasp them.
More difficult it became to understand the teacher’s story about how oil develops. How can rests of plans and animals get many thousands of meters below the surface? I can go on and on listing things that are of measures that are beyond our capability to imagine: Try to imagine the Planck-length (1.6 x 10-35 m), a lightyear (9.5 x 1015 m), the age of the Universe (13.7 x 109 yr). Try imagining phenomena from Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity (I have tried that many, many times!). And worst of all: Try imagining quantum phenomena. As Bohr once stated: If you believe you understand quantum theory, you clearly have not understood it.
As humans we can imagine measures that have been relevant for our survival through the millennia of our existence, that is, before the era of technology. So for time we have a pretty good grasp of periods of seconds all the way up to tens of years. For distances we are able to think of millimeters all the way up to a few kilometers, probably as far as the eye can see on Earth. Weight: Grams up to maybe 100 kilograms. These are the sizes we are able to get our mind around, and even determine, with a pretty good accuracy, without any instruments.
Go beyond these measures, and we must switch off our imagination and switch on our abstract thinking, scientific mind. I am able to calculate with very large and very small numbers, without truly grasping these numbers. It is as with money: I have no clue how much 1 billion dollars is. Do you? Does anyone?
The point is that we live in a world that has expanded into realms that we cannot imagine, we can only calculate them. Doing calculations with these unimaginable numbers (not to say: imaginary numbers…) requires education, and the ability and willingness to think abstractly, i.e. think in categories for which we do not possess a clear mental concept.
This inability to imagine these very small and very large quantities is outside of our comfort zone and drives many people to either ignore them or, and this is much worse, deny them. And this denial leads to anti-science movements, denial of climate change, denial of evolution, and in the end a denial of taking responsibility for what we are doing with our world.
In our daily lives we are also governed by short time spans: Business are focused on the next quarter, politicians on the next election, families on the next pay check. I know, there are companies who do some long term scenarios. There are now and then discussions about the costs of health care 30 years from now. And many people have a pension plan. But these are typically not the driving forces behind our day to day activities, be it in business, in politics or in our family lives. Even Scientific research seems to be going from publication to publication, from grant to grant.
With the size of the human population, and our technical ability to really make a difference, for better or for worse, it is mandatory that we start thinking and acting based on a longer term perspective. Not by a select elite, but by the drivers of where we go. By business leaders, by political leaders, and that means by all people. This requires teaching the longer perspective at school, discussing it on TV, study the longer perspective of human society seriously through long-term studies using simulation and scenarios. We need to expand the psychological comfort zone of human beings to the sizes of things: Times, distances, weights, energy levels, etc. that are now crucial for the survival of humanity.