When thinking about big things, very big things, the parable of the blind men and the elephant is instructive: each of the men feels for a part of the elephant. "It's a wall"; "It's a rope"; "a tree": in debating what it is, they almost come to blows. Leonard Susskind, who developed string theory, says this isn't unlike the battle that plays out in our mind, between what we can percieve and what we can know. "The universe, even more than the elephant, is too big for any one perspective, and most of us are busy squabbling about some small part."
Last week, NASA announced that it had discovered the biggest spiral galaxy known to man. From "tip to tip," the NGC 6872 spans 522,000 light years—five times the length of our own Milky Way, which is already considered a pretty massive spiral galaxy.
So that's big. Bigger than you could ever hope to realistically comprehend. Its bigness is what commands our attention, really, and not the actual size—if NGC 6872 was just the second or third or god forbid, fourth biggest spiral galaxy ever seen by man, you probably wouldn't have heard about it at all, unless you happened to be a galaxy buff. The reason we're talking about it is the superlative. We're perpetually hearing about the discovery or re-discovery of the "biggest" stuff there is.
Especially in the age of the web, 'bigness' is key—the hook and the headline writes itself when something is bigger than everything else. That's all you really need to say, for some reason, there's an assumption that "Of course this is interesting: It's the biggest."
But why do we care? Isn't it more interesting that this galaxy is the result of a collision with another galaxy? Why does the primality of bigness transfix us across the spectrum? Why do we carefully chronicle this superlative as it appears at every scale? Might it make us tiny humans feel somehow bigger? In an infinitely big universe, bigness becomes a matter of abstraction: in our tiny fraction of space, we can percieve only a very few big things. We want to see and know the universe's biggest things. But they are far, far bigger--and, in some cases, far smaller--than we can conceive.
The biggest living organism on planet Earth? A blue whale? A redwood tree? Nope. Sussing out the biggest is fun, not in spite of, but because of the ambiguity—big is fluid, big is relative, big is highly dependent on an arbitrary set of assumptions put forth by whoever's doing the big-crowning. Case in point: the biggest living organism on earth is a honey mushroom that grows underground in Oregon. It covers 2,385 acres—a single organism, with identical DNA all the way through. That's the biggest living thing on earth.
Man-made objects captivate us differently for what they say about human endeavor--both in their construction as well as in their applications. Which brings us to the that claims to be the biggest land vehicle ever built, period.
Not a hummer, not a tank—but a German strip mining machine called the Bagger 288. It weighs 13,500 tons, stands 311 feet tall, and spans 705 feet long. As Motherboard's Ben Richmond notes, "it eats mountains and shits coal and ruined landscape." Think twice before playing chicken with this thing.
Now that the Space Shuttle program is a distant memory, NASA's giving away the farm, quite literally. But it's not going to abandon the Shuttle crawler-transporter, the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world (also, driving it away would simply be impossible). Nothing in NASA's possession is as large as this thing. The 6 million pound, $14 million vehicle — the first was constructed in the early 1960s to handle the first Apollo-Saturn missions, the second came later — was the brainchild of engineers from the industry that has the monopoly on heavy equipment: mining.
Resource extraction also drives the largest manmade moving object on Earth, said to be an oil and gas seismic survey vessel called the Ramform Viking. Collecting more than 1.12 Terabytes of seismic survey data per day, the surveyor, with its 10 streamers spread out in the water, covers an area more than a kilometer wide and more than 8 km long. This is what it would look like if it managed to crawl across the island of Manahattan:
As it crawls across the ocean at a speed of 4.3 knots in full production, it covers a total surface area of 215 square kilometers per day, searching for an "improved picture of the complex subsurface where hydrocarbons can be found."
Saudi Arabia's newly opened Abraj Al-Bait Towers, also known as the Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower, is home to more than the tallest clock tower and the largest clock face: it's also the building with the world's largest floor area. The tower is only the second tallest building in the world, surpassing Taiwan's Taipei 101 in 2012, and surpassed only by Dubai's Burj Khalifa. To the anger of many Turks, an historic Ottoman-era citidel had to be destroyed to make way for the Western-style pleasure dome, built by the Saudi Binladin Group. It now looms over the world's largest mosque, and Islam's most sacred site, the Masjid al Haram, where pilgrims arrive every year on the Hajj, the largest annual pilgramage in the world.
Then there is the unambiguous big, the things that every human being on earth will be interested in appraising. Like the biggest known structure in the universe—a group of 73 quasars that stretches 1.6 billion light-years in most directions.
Or the world's biggest pair of natural breasts.
There's the arcane and the curious, the I suppose we'll look at the biggest ball of twine because why not?
Like "tallest skyscraper," the title "biggest chair" has been the subject of a global race, Atlas Obscura reports. The current leader sits in Lucena, Spain, not surprisingly, sits outside a chair factory. It's as tall as an 8-storey building, weighs 120,000 kilos and required 230 cubic meters of timber (or roughly 9200 regular-sized chairs).
The largest modular analog synthesizer was reportedly built by Joe Paradiso, a professor at MIT's Media Lab. In the early 1970s, with data sheets and hobbyist magazines at hand, he taught himself electronics, found parts in surplus stores, and spent the next fifteen years building the modules and hacking consumer keyboards. With 125 modules, it is now likely the world’s largest. It's bigger than even its size suggests: you can play it online. Does that make it as big as the Internet?
Making the biggest photograph in the world required the biggest camera. It was taken in Irvine, California in 2006 as part of the Legacy Project, a photographic compilation of the history of the now-disused Marine Corps Air Station, which is being turned into a new park. And it wasn't digital. Using an abandoned F-18 hangar as their camera obscura, the photographers--Jerry Burchfield, Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Douglas McCulloh and Clayton Spada--captured a black-and-white negative print of the air station with its control tower and runways and the San Joaquin Hills in the background. The result is 32 feet high and 111 feet long.
And then there's the case of very small bigness, as in the largest single-celled organism on the planet, which some scientists say is the xenophyophore, a deep sea amoeba. It can grow up to four centimeters long--that's the biggest cell on the planet.
Bigness can signal achievement of course; athletic or intellectual. The biggest wave ever surfed, for instance. It was a 78-footer, caught off Portugal's coast in November 2012.
Or the biggest novel ever written; the Guinness Book of World Records hands it to Proust, for In Search of Lost Time, clocking in at around 1.2 million words.
But do we care about big when it's easy? Take the case of the biggest domain name ever registered. Piqued? It's this:
It might even be too big to fit in your browser. But who cares, right? It takes like three seconds to type out the characters, and five minutes to register on GoDaddy. Guinness wasn't impressed, either. The site's owner applied for consideration, and they wrote him back:
After having examined the information you sent, and given full consideration to your proposal, I am afraid we are unable to accept your proposal as a record.
This record is currently rested, which means that no one can attempt this record and become a new record holder. It has been rested because there is no merit whatsoever in this. It takes little to no effort and is similar to taking the largest number in the world and then adding 1 to it.
This seems instructive. Bigness should be hard to make or hard to fathom; otherwise we're not interested. Consider the largest prime number. Euclid proved that there are infinitely many of these numbers; after awhile however, they become increasingly treasure-like and tricky to uncover. The largest one--again, an integer divisible only by one and itself--required serious computing power but, in 2008, make its discoverers $100,000 richer, thanks to a prize called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, or GIMPS. In this case, the winner had 12,978,189 digits. And, curiously, rather than being made by simply adding 1, it was made by subtracing instead:
243,112,609 − 1
As remarkable as that kind of bigness is, it's also remarkably mundane. Writing out the number would be practically impossible; like much of the universe's big things, we humans, who occupy a tiny fraction of that universe, are faced with a spectacular abstraction, objects that happen to be far larger than our brains can begin to envision.
Which is perhaps why we gravitate to things like the World's Largest Collection of World's Smallest Versions of World's Largest Things Traveling Roadside Attraction and Museum in Lucas, Kansas. The name of the museum--or at least its size--says it all.