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Sitting still? It all depends
Perception determines your view of reality
By George A. Ricker

Are you sitting still?

I raise the question because I want to talk about perceptions, yours and mine, and how they color our view of the world. Those perceptions lead us to make assumptions about the way things work that really don’t hold up under scrutiny. Nonetheless, the assumptions are useful because they help us to get through the day. As long as we realize what’s really happening, the assumptions can’t hurt us. It’s only when we convert those assumptions into absolutes that they lead us astray.

Consider the question with which I started.

Hopefully, you are sitting comfortably in your favorite chair, or some other cozy spot, with a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage at hand. Whatever your position while reading this, you probably are standing or sitting still because it is difficult to read while moving.

Except, you aren’t.

Sitting or standing, you are in motion. In fact, you are in motion at a relatively high rate of speed. The planet to which you are anchored has a rotational velocity of about 1,000 mph. Think about that. While sitting still, you are moving faster than the fastest automobile and most airplanes, and you are not even aware of it.

Actually things are a bit more complicated because how fast you are moving depends upon where you are located on the planet. Earth’s circumference at the Equator is more than 24,000 miles, and it takes about 24 hours for the planet to complete one rotation. Hence the rotational velocity of about 1,000 mph. However, if you are at a higher latitude, then the speed at which you are traveling would be progressively slower because you have less distance to travel in the same 24-hour period.

But that only begins to tell the story. While it spins along, the earth is in motion around the sun at a speed of approximately 66,000 mph. The sun and its planets are in motion around the core of the galaxy at a faster rate, and the entire galaxy is moving through space at a speed that is still greater.

Are you dizzy yet?

The reason you are unaware of all this motion is that there is no acceleration associated with it, and everything near you is stationary relative to your position. Your perception is that you are sitting still, even though you are, quite literally, flying through space. If you were traveling down a road that was completely smooth, in a vehicle with no windows, at a constant rate of speed, you also would be unaware of movement. Relative to the world within your perception, you would be motionless.

Or try this.

Everything looks solid around you, doesn’t it? People talk all the time about standing on “solid” ground, or about things being “rock solid.” I know my desk looks solid, as does the tree outside my living room window and the car driving on the street. If I rap the desk with my knuckles, I will hear a reassuring “thunk” and feel the impact.

Yet, science tells us all matter is made up of clouds of atoms, and all of those atoms are in motion. The atoms are bound together in molecules, and the various molecules form the structure of things. All of those “solid” objects around you are, including your own body, are really bundles of molecules and are mostly made of air.

The “solidness” of objects is really a function of the interaction of molecules and forces. That’s what makes it impossible for you to walk through a wall. Some science fiction writers have had a great time with that idea.

For example, neutron stars are created when the central region of a massive star (two to four times the size of our sun) collapses after a supernova explosion. Protons and electrons combine to form neutrons and create a star that is so dense that on earth one teaspoonful of the stuff that makes up that star would weigh one billion tons, according to NASA’s Imagine the Universe.

Or think about the size of things.

Our earth seems very large. It is immense to the human eye, filled with grand vistas of spectacular mountains and endless seas. It is home to more than six billion humans and many billions more of other living creatures.

However, earth is but a small fraction of the matter in the solar system, let alone the universe.

The cosmos, as the late Dr. Carl Sagan was fond of reminding us, is made up of billions of galaxies containing billions of stars. Our sun is a medium-sized star sitting on one of the arms of a spiral galaxy that is made up of many such stars. It is not the smallest star, to be sure, but it is far from being the largest.

But, compared to earth, the sun is enormous. If the sun were a hollow ball, more than one million planets the size of earth would fit inside. That means our earth, this immense planet we occupy, is less than one millionth of the size of the sun. Add in all the other planets in our solar system, and our home planet’s contribution to the total mass is vanishingly small. If it weren’t there at all, it wouldn’t be missed.

From a cosmic perspective, earth truly is but a tiny speck of matter hurling through space. Yet, to our human perspective, our world is no tiny ball of dust but a home of gargantuan proportions.

We do not perceive the motion of the earth because, relative to its surface, we are motionless and the rate of speed is constant, or at least, any variations in that rate are so small they are undetectable to us.

Matter appears to be solid to our perception. But we know it’s really mostly air. If you could remove all the unoccupied space from matter, you could get a huge amount of the stuff into a thimble. Of course, you probably wouldn’t be able to lift it.

The earth appears to be huge to our human scale, even though—measured from other points of view—it is vanishingly small.

We perceive the real world and the people who occupy it from various points of view, and the nature of both depends, in large part, on the point of view from which we perceive them.

That does not mean that everything is a matter of opinion. What it means is that reality is far more complex than most of us realize, and it is defined by the frame of reference from which we view it.

Are you sitting down?

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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