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Wings Over Sealand


The greatest word ever written

Posted on July 11, 2011 by RevStu

There are lots of great writers. Even within the professional community, let alone the general public, you'll have a hard time getting two people to agree on who was the best ever. Was it Shakespeare? Orwell? Joyce? Sega Zone-era Jonathan Davies? The arguments echo timelessly through the ages.

I've got many heroes and inspirations of my own – Steven Wells, Miranda Sawyer, Barbara Ellen, Craig Kubey, Rosie Boycott, Douglas Adams and more. (Including the fictional composite entity Lloyd Mangram.)

But the greatest writer of all time is someone whose name I don't even know, and who to earn the accolade only had to write a single word.

The person who can simultaneously bring a lump to my throat and provoke love, awe, empirical thought and the closest I ever get to spirituality, all with a single syllable of four letters, is the unknown member of the BBC production team who named the fifth episode of the Corporation's acclaimed natural-history series The Planets.

Because the fifth episode of The Planets is called "Star".

At the time the series was running, I remember being in the now sadly-defunct Bath pub Hatchett's with a couple of former Future Publishing journo colleagues, Zy "SuperPlay" Nicholson and Amstrad Action's Simon Forrester (better known to readers and friends alike as The Hairy Happening).

We were chatting about the excellence of the show, and I made what I'd imagined to be an embarrassing revelation – that I actually got tears welling in my eyes just thinking about the title of the episode about the Sun. As it happened I was exhibiting a shameful lack of faith in my chums, because both of them instantly and enthusiastically agreed, citing the exact reasons I'd been preparing to try to explain.

The main reason that whoever chose the title of the episode is a true literary genius is how easy it would have been to miss the chance. Episode 4 had been called "Moon", and simply going with "Sun" for the next one would have been obvious and logical and consistent. Nobody would have been fired for giving Episode 5 that name, and quite reasonably so.

But names are powerful things, and to have done so would have been to damn the episode with a soubriquet that possessed none of the spine-tingling power the real one carried, because the thing that's so profound and emotional and overwhelming about "Star" is that it says two things so utterly, diametrically contradictory, yet both of them completely true.

To the limits of our current knowledge, our existence in the Universe as sentient beings is unique and miraculous. The mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos is inconceivable to our simple ape brains, the colossal numbers involved in quantifying our place in the infinite void so huge and so irrelevant to our daily lives as to be meaningless.

We accept words like "billions and "trillions" and "light-years" in abstract and relative senses, because we don't need to have any understanding of them. Indeed, we've allowed ourselve to commonly bastardise the meanings of the former two by a factor of a thousand, both mainly out of vanity (led by the Americans, who love to exaggerate) and a realisation that we can't really get our heads round the vastness of such figures by either definition, so it doesn't really matter all that much what we call them.

At this point I'd like to share with you the result of my own crude simian attempts to get a handle on the situation. Imagine a cube exactly 1cm along each side, roughly the size of a sugarlump. Now imagine a 1-metre cubic box – that's about three feet, for our pre-metric viewers – filled with said cubes. There would be a million of them (100 x 100 x 100) inside the box. Pretty manageable, right?

A billion – a true billion, not the stupid, emasculated American version that makes a mockery of the most fundamental concepts of our language – would require a million of the large boxes, ie a stack 100 metres long by 100 metres deep by 100 metres high.

That's very roughly the size of a football pitch with a 30-storey office block built on it. Picture one of those (still pretty easy), and think about the number of tiny 1cm cubes (1cm is around the length of the nail on your little finger) required to completely fill it. That's how many a billion is. (Or what Americans call a trillion.)

And for a real trillion, multiply everything by 100 again. Now your cube is a bit over six miles wide, six miles deep, and six miles high. That's an area of London encompassing the westernmost point of Hyde Park all the way to Stepney in the East End, and from Highbury in the north right down to Clapham Common in the south (or if you prefer, roughly the whole Tube map out to the far edge of Zone 2), all extended upwards until it's 20% higher than Mount Everest.

Imagine making a journey through or around the edge of that area, imagine it more than an Everest high, and imagine putting individual sugar cubes in it until every last inch of it was full. (If it helps, start by imagining doing it for the room you're currently in, then work your way out.)

If you could somehow pack a 1-cubic-metre box every second, filling just that chunk of London would take you 31,710 years. To be finished by teatime, you'd have to have started in the Upper Paleolithic era. That's how many a trillion is.

Okay, you've done well. Take a moment to catch your breath.

All you need to do now is multiply that number by a few hundred thousand (in our example, until your cube is roughly 440 miles along each edge, which would cover a ground footprint stretching from London to Brive-la-Gaillarde in Southern France, then across to Trento near the Italian-Swiss border and finally up to Hanover, built up to meet the orbit of NASA's Aqua satellite).

Nip down to Tesco for enough 1cm sugarcubes to fill THAT space and you've got our current best estimate at the number of stars in the universe.

And that, for those of you who glazed over several paragraphs ago, is how absolutely stupefyingly insignificant a star is. Earth's modest Sun is as important in the cosmos as a single sugarcube in a cafe in Stuttgart or Neuchatel or Ghent is to the functioning of the entire European Union, and the reason it's so unremarkable is that it's just a star.

One day it'll blink out, and the universe will notice as much as you noticed what Hans-Dieter Grubenschnitzel of Wurzburg put in his skinny vanilla latte 10 seconds ago, and the universe will care even less.

Go outside, stop 100 random people in the street and unless you live in a planetarium I'll wager a good 90+ of them wouldn't even be able to tell you the Sun's proper name. And that's our own star. That's how inconsequential it is.

Of course, there's an alternative view. Every atom of every element inside every one of us was forged in the heart of that same star (or one like it). We are, as romantics are fond of saying, literally made of stars.

The unimaginable furnaces of suns fused hydrogen and helium atoms together to make carbon and iron and calcium and all the rest, spewed them out into space, and somehow they coalesced into rock and water and cells and suddenly there we were, walking around buying box sets of The Wire and inventing music and Fruit Pastilles and sending probes to Titan and wondering how long Katie Price's latest marriage would last and wishing she would die.

Nobody has a clue how it happened, all we know is that it was made possible by a big ball of fire in the sky that's been exploding for millions of years, so incredible that it can sustain the inexplicable miracle that is life, so powerful that it can stll burn our skin from almost 100 million miles away, and so chaotically random it created not just us but also elephants and bluebirds and pythons and tigers and wasps and swans and hedgehogs and unbelievably weird fluorescent shit at the bottom of the sea.

I'm staggered constantly – and I mean constantly, to the point where it's a wonder I ever manage to get anything done – by the astonishing things that we take for granted because we see them all the time (or at least when there's a new David Attenborough series on), which would utterly blow our minds were we to discover them on one of the moons of Jupiter.

Try it yourself – just go for a walk in the park one day, look around at ducks and dogs and squirrels and damselflies and robins and goldfish and allow yourself to notice how incredibly strange they are, and how amazing it is that they and we all evolved from some gas inside a star.

That, chums, is how sense-numbingly amazing a thing a star is.

And there it is. Stars are the most phenomenal things in existence – vast engines of violent atomic destruction, yet also the source and the support of all known life. We would never have lived without the Sun, that life would be instantly extinguished without it, but it's so terrifying and fierce and bright that we can't even look directly at it.

(Although a few weeks ago, WoSland took a trip to the recently restored National Trust manor house at Tyntesfield, and happened to luck into a special exhibition being held in the grounds that week, where a few sciencey types had set up special filtering telescopes and other devices which enabled one to do that very thing. Being able to gaze straight at a deep red Sun, and make out sunspots and prominences on its surface in real time with the near-naked eye is one of the most mind-blowing experiences I've had in living memory, which at my age goes back to almost the beginning of February.)

A star made everything on our planet. It made mountains and seas and clouds, but also our brains, with which we remember things and build palaces and make iPhones and submarines and bombs and Rice Krispies and jet aeroplanes and rocket ships. We don't know of anything (seen from life's perspective, at least) more awesome or miraculous in all of creation. We've invented all sorts of fairy stories to explain – or avoid confronting – its stupendous power. Yet at the same time, this miracle is a million times more commonplace in the cosmos than grains of sand on a beach.

(And ours is a tiddler, in star terms.)

Sorry. I'm going on a bit, I know, and I'm stopping more because I've exhausted the thesaurus than anything else. But trust me, viewers, all this is only a tiny fragment of what rushes through my brain whenever I think of Episode 5 of The Planets. (Just be grateful I spared you the long tangent on The Vaccines and 3D Deathchase.)

It wouldn't have happened if they'd called it "Sun", or "The Sun", or "Big Yellow Shiny Space God", or even "Stars". Only one word, one very precise word, carries all that potency and contradictory meaning.

Shakespeare did some good stuff. I've read Orwell's "1984" a dozen times, and found new insight and foresight in it every time. (It's basically the Bible to me.) British literary culture as we know it wouldn't have existed without Douglas Adams, and certainly its videogames magazines would have been very different and much worse. And Dan Brown and JK Rowling have made a lot of money.

But none of them, and no other writer alive, has ever come close to conveying so much – such an infinite encyclopaedia of poetry and knowledge and mystery and beauty and joy and terror – with a single word.

This piece is two thousand times that size, and it's just some hopeless flailing that still doesn't do the job remotely as well. That's partly because I'm an only barely competent writer, but chiefly it's because with language, less is generally more.

Language is an awkward and artificial construction, useful in lots of practical ways but a bit like programming a computer in BASIC instead of assembly – it's an unwieldy, time-consuming process of translation, trying to communicate things that we know instinctively in our genes but have difficulty expressing because we're trying to use the wrong tools for the job.

The naming of "Star" is the greatest literary achievement in the entire history of words, a masterpiece of compression, and whoever chose it as a title should have a statue outside the British Library. If I ever do anything even a tenth as good, you have my permission to shoot me.

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25 to “The greatest word ever written”

  1. Rolo says:

    Well, someone's taken up smoking marijuana.

  2. RevStu says:

    I don’t understand why anyone would need drugs when there’s the Universe.

  3. Skeptobot says:

    Wonderful piece. Love it.
    But I can't help but say that the 'American' billion (10^9) is actually the SI billion* and far, far more elegant than the British Billion. Jumps in 10^3 (kilo, million, billion) is far more useful for thinking than the irregular jumps the old system needs.
    * And therefore french more than anything,

  4. Lenny says:

    Time.
    There's a word that does much the same for me.

  5. Sickboy says:

    Hippy.

  6. RevStu says:

    "Jumps in 10^3 (kilo, million, billion) is far more useful for thinking than the irregular jumps the old system needs."

    There was already a word for "thousand million", namely "milliard". I don't know why we need a special word for thousand million anyway. What's wrong with saying "thousand million"? We seem to manage okay with hundreds of thousands.

    (Actually, as further proof that Scotland is best, Alex Salmond always says “thousand million” when talking about what wrong people call a “billion”, and nobody seems to die as a result.)

  7. Skeptobot says:

    Coming from a science background I find it hard to put into words how important and vital the  standard SI system is. I love a Pint as much as the next person, but SI is the easiest most elegant way to think about the universe – and it uses 10^9 = Billion = Giga.  
    It makes all your units interlock like elegantly made clockwork. 

  8. Sickboy says:

    Lovely piece, fella. How, how, how do I get to do the stare-at-the-sun thing? Sounds glorious.

  9. Hypocee says:

    Sub-ed: Our elements weren’t forged in Sol. They came from previous generations of stars, mixed into Sol’s nebula from the beginning; many of them can only form in supernovae.

  10. RevStu says:

    "Lovely piece, fella. How, how, how do I get to do the stare-at-the-sun thing? Sounds glorious."

    Gawd knows. Like I say, we totally lucked into it, had no idea it was going to be there. It was some sort of unremarkable-looking and surprisingly little telescopey thing that you looked down into through a little eyepiece, and at almost every angle all you saw was blackness. But by making very small movements you could locate the sun (initially it just looked like the entire "screen" had gone a deep red) and then examine it for details to your heart's content. The prominences mostly looked like tiny filaments, but the day we were there there was a pretty big one going on in the lower left quadrant. They had to drag me away so other people could have a go. Damned other people.

    I imagine it was something like this, whose image looks very like a more orangey version of what we saw:
    http://www.harrisontelescopes.co.uk/acatalog/Coronado_Personal_Solar_Telescope.html

  11. RevStu says:

    "It makes all your units interlock like elegantly made clockwork. "

    That would presumably remain the case whatever those units were called. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but in my book the first person to invent a word is the one who gets to decide what it means, and anyone who comes along afterwards and announces it means something massively different is both an idiot sowing the seeds of confusion, and a rude cunt.

  12. bananaphone says:

    Check out this video, if you've not seen it already:

    Always does a pretty good job of blowing my mind.

  13. BrunoB says:

    So did u like Danny Boyle's "Sunshine"?

  14. RevStu says:

    It was okay, but I always get a bit depressed when it turns out it was some magical supernatural monster.

  15. Brian Cox must be a good writer cos he would have just written "'Star' is just amazing".

    Ditto on Sunshine.  What a massive cop-out.

  16. Ross says:

    Given that our local star brings out the best in marijuana, it'd be rude not to.

  17. RevStu says:

    "Ditto on Sunshine.  What a massive cop-out."

    Yeah. It's one step above "It was all a dream!" Lazy fucks.

  18. itsallcrap says:

    I used to love Zy Nicholson's reviews.  Tell him to apply for the RPS vacancy at once.

    Oh, and I suppose the thousand or two words following the bit where I saw his name were quite nice as well.

  19. Irish Al says:

    There was me thinking that 'festoon' was the greatest word ever written.

  20. myk says:

    "Powers Of Ten" did a pretty good job of sending 9 year old me into a bemused, horrified and astonished contemplation of the vastness of things – the closest thing I've found to a Total Perspective Vortex. It's quite famous, starting out with a couple lying down in a Chicago park before zooming out gradually to show galactic clusters and then quickly going back and zooming in to show atoms and so on.
     
    The most startling thing I find is the presence of yawning chasms of empty space in both directions. Yikes! It also deftly avoids using either the long or short scale, instead stating "1,000 million" "1 million million" and so on; guess there must have been some arguments during production.
     
    There's a great version here that replaces the narrative with appropriately spacey ambient music, which is just lovely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvTe1-a6Pdo

  21. defsdoor says:

    Best thing you've written as far back as I can remember (which is probably around about February also).

  22. Carl Berry says:

    "But I can't help but say that the 'American' billion (10^9) is actually the SI billion"  Well that's not strictly true, 10^9 means you use the prefix giga.
    The SI doesn't actually have anything to say on billion vs. thousand million other than a warning against using the phrase "parts per billion" as it may be misinterpreted, well not in the English version of the SI brochure I haven't checked the definitive French version.

  23. Jon says:

    What I found incredible about "Sunshine" was I enjoyed the film despite the stupid ending; and the take-away image/feel of the film was the bored captain, obsessed with the sun.

  24. Snow-cakes says:

    Wow – you like the word  'star'  there is no mistaking it.

  25. Captain Caveman says:

    Nice piece, but actually it is only the heavier elements, beyond helium, that have been forged in the cores of massive, primordial stars (not the Sun), which have long since gone supernova. Hydrogen and helium (plus a tiny dash of lithium) were formed shortly after the Big Bang, not by stars – and hydrogen is of course a key component of everything we are, not least because we are mainly water.
     
    Also, there are approx. 1 x 10^24 stars in the known universe (at last count AFAIK),  i.e. at least five orders of magnitude greater than the 'hundred billion times a few hundred thousand' figure that you mentioned in your piece.
    Stars are incredible; I've never ceased to be amazed at the true giants among them; 'O' spectral class supergiants burning their colossal fuel stores in a couple of million years or so, burning so bright. Then, in death, burning as brightly as 20 billion stars, before sometimes becoming something even more fascinating than a star – a black hole. The universe is a wondrous, incredible place.






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