How Big is Big?


Expanding my world in 1966 and 2019

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve grown older is that I have yet to grow up. When I was a kid, 20 years old was a huge, far-off age. Twenty meant being grown up. Of course, I was completely wrong.

Another thing I didn’t understand when I was a kid is that Learning ≠ School. Learning means different things at different periods of our lives.

Grade One was the most exciting time of my intellectual life because it was then that I learned to read. I quickly became a voracious reader, and that has never changed.

I was in Grade One from 1965–1966, so it was probably in 1966 that I read a book called How Big is Big? This book was my introduction to the concept of infinity. How big is big? Big could expand from my house, to my city, to my country, to the whole Earth. Then I learned that our Earth is revolving around our Sun, and our Sun is but one star in a Milky Way galaxy made up of an unimaginable number of stars. In turn, the Milky Way is just one galaxy amongst a huge number of galaxies in something called the Universe. All of this stretched my mind and it’s still no more comprehensible now that I have some mathematical understanding of numbers like these:

  • There are 1024 stars in the universe.
  • There are two trillion galaxies in the universe.

But How Big is Big also taught me that infinity goes in another direction. If I started with my own body, I could go inwards and see that my body was made up of organs, tissues, cells, molecules, and ultimately atoms, which in turn could be taken apart even further so that an atom’s nucleus could be compared to a tiny sun with planet-like things called electrons and protons revolving around it!

Now, in 2019, I can learn from Googling that even tiny entities can be expressed with some very large numbers, like these:

  • There are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body.
  • The human genome (our genetic material, DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid], composed of chemicals called nucleotides strung together in a unique order for each one of us) contains 3 billion pairs of these nucleotides.
  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain.

In the early 1980s, as a university student at the peak of my physical and intellectual powers, I was discovering all the details about DNA and the new field of recombinant DNA technology—a kind of technology that is now changing our lives in myriad ways and leading people to question the morality of the God-like power this technology can give humans to modify foods, animals, and even create “designer babies.” Now, I’ve forgotten 99% of what I learned in university.

It was only when I was in my fifties that I started understanding just how much I hadn’t learned in school.

No amount of “book learning” can tell a person the answer to the most important question we must all answer. That question is related to what I think about when I ask, “How big is big?” and “How small is small?” What I am really thinking about when I ask these questions is, “How do I fit in as part of this incomprehensibly vast universe?” Or, in other words, “What is my life’s meaning?”


One of the supremely gifted people to grapple with this question was Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. Frankl was able to endure one of the worst hells ever created on Earth by realizing that the one thing his captors could not take away from him was his human ability to choose how he responded to his circumstances. He chose to keep his dignity and his will to live. Frankl is famous for his book Man’s Search for Meaning (which I read decades ago).

I was reminded of Frankl when I recently read Stephen Covey’s classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey quotes Frankl’s conviction: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. . . . Therein he cannot be replaced.”1

7 Habits of Highly Effective People has generated a new burst of learning for me. It’s jump-started a new way for me to think about my life’s path. It’s given me a powerful resolve to make my life even better than it already is—and guidance about how to translate that resolve into action, because reading is only the beginning of learning. I will write more about 7 Habits in my next blog post.

To answer the question “What is my life’s meaning?” involves a third kind of infinity, I could say. In addition to the infinitely large and the infinitely small, there is the infinitely inward—that universe contained within each human being’s brain-consciousness-spirit.

What do I want to hold on to from 1966? I never want to lose my child’s sense of discovery, of awe, of the incomprehensible.


1. Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, 2004, 2013.

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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