We have spent most of this past academic year, Alexandros, considering what is smallest. This has been logical. Your confidence. Your list of friends. Your resemblance to your mighty imperial father. His esteem of you. The number of times he and your uncles have invited you on the royal hunt since two autumns ago. The size of the minotaur your cousin speared instead of the really really big one he didn’t because you sneezed at precisely the wrong moment. The chances your mother claims you have of ever growing into your father’s caliber king. Your hope for a bright, just, and inclusive future. Your biceps. All of these are exceedingly small things, pupil. Indeed, they are so pathetically minor they can hardly be said to exist at all.
Hence our inquiries into the tiniest aspects of the natural world. Particle physics. Quantum mechanics. Strings and theories about them. What matter gets up to way down there beneath the toenails of existence. As I have told you during one of your protracted moping fits, we should count your diminutive preoccupation as a blessing, for it has privileged you to see more clearly than many a great Greek philosopher that it is what is small which gives rise to what is large, the particulars which collaborate on the forms, the particles which conspire into planets.
I won’t mock your moping, Alexandros. Myopia and a bent-backed posture might well lead any other thoughtful boy into a fascinating future in subatomic exploration. A job working at one of those very large particle colliders where they smash matter into smaller and smaller bits by firing chunks in opposing directions along vast underground superluminal racetracks would be wicked interesting. I’d like that a lot, to be an argonaut on the quest for the literal atom, that thing which cannot be divided again and again into some smaller thing but simply and completely is.
But you are not just any thoughtful boy, Alexandros. You are the son of Philip II and one day you will be king of all of Greece. Will our territory grow under your watch or will it shrink? Will our study of small things lead to progress or will it invite retraction? These are weighty questions for the final day of school. Another academic year has come to a close. Today is the eve of the Kronia and starting at sundown the great god Kronos will temporarily reverse the flow of time. For one fortnight masters will serve servants, horses will ride riders, women will be allowed to vote. Anachronisms will run amok as fuck while you and I take a holiday reprieve from our tutorials. Final days are days for reflection, Alexandros, and as your tutor I find myself questioning whether our focus on particularity will be wholly healthy going forward. I ask this not just for your sake but for our great nation’s as well.
Therefore, Alexandros, on our final afternoon for awhile together, before the orgies and wine quaffing contests commence, I have prepared a special surprise, a deviation from our typical mode, a presentation on:
***THE TOP-FIVE BIGGEST OBJECTS IN THE UNIVERSE***
Is that a nervous smile, Alexandros, or are you choking? You’re choking? Here, here, have some juice. Drink it down. There. You’re okay. You’re just fine. Alright then. Let the countdown begin. We’ll start with:
Number 5: The Biggest Planet
If this were any earlier in the semester, I’d insist we discuss in depth what a planet truly is. But I won’t. There is so much out there, Alexandros. Or down there. Or up there. Or whatever preposition you prefer. For obviously there can be no up or down or left or right when bobbing about in zero gravity. So, to begin basically, a planet is round or round-ish, relatively stable for a floating thing, almost always spinning, and both gravitated and gravitating. There.
Fulfilling the aforementioned criteria and much much more, Alexandros, I present to you NML Cygni, whose radius is a-hard-to-fathom 1,652 times that of our sun.
The travel time of a strong steed galloping hard from Hellespont to the beaches of Thessaloniki is just under seven hours. No, no. A legitimate rider. Not you. This is also how long it would take your dad to drive a chariot traveling at the speed of light around NML Cygni once. Quite girthy, you’ll agree.
Let us move on then to:
Number 4: The Biggest Black Hole
Terrifying. That which is defined by what it is not. Defined by what it devours. Everything. It eats all. Even light cannot escape its benighted grasp, a massive invisible maw at the center of all that is. Virtually every galaxy we’ve examined revolves around one of these sepulchers of ancient suns. Now focus your attention, pupil, on the grandest such beast we’ve endeavored to comprehend to date.
I say endeavor, for I believe we have yet to truly comprehend it, for it is simply beyond our brain’s breadth. This kraken of krakens is NGC 1277 and it weighs 17 billion solar masses! Do you know what a solar mass is? Well, for all your reticence, Alexandros, I know you know a solar mass is the total mass of our sun and all nine planets and all their moons as well as every asteroid and speck of stardust in our system. All of it adds up to one single solar mass. And NGC1277 equals 17 billion of them! As forewarned, we mortals find it impossible to hold such scale in our mere six-pound cerebrums.
On to the next entry on the countdown, on to:
Number 3: The Biggest Void
I misled you, pupil, having just characterized black holes as non-entities when in fact that is not completely true. Black holes do have mass, without which we would not mention them as massive. But what is truly not? Can there even be such a state? You recall from last winter’s lectures on logic how proof of a negative is a dubious enterprise. It is challenging to discuss non-things when our senses are so preoccupied with and overwhelmed by thing-things. Galaxies, for example. These are things full of things times infinity full of things. They come in clusters which are very faintly bound by gravitational fields and we see them literally everywhere we look. Except for the very rare places where we don’t.
We are talking now about voids, sprawling ones, ones bigger than the biggest version of big we can possibly ideate, the biggest being the Boötes Void, a region 252 million times the size of our own galaxy, full of exactly nothing.
Several illustrations I’ve tried to render for you failed, failed, failed, voids being notoriously unphotogenic.
Now on to our penultimate entry.
Number 2: The Cosmic Web
Nearly every cosmologist and astronomer from here to Gaul agrees that the Cosmic Web is tangible and cohesive and integral enough to be considered a single entity in its own right, and since it is a network linking nearly every galaxy in the entire universe by way of a web of hydrogen gas filaments, the Cosmic Web is therefore the biggest object in the Universe, an intergalactic union making up the vast majority of all that is. If our own galaxy were a mustard seed, the Cosmic Web would be the Great Sea. And yet even the CW is dwarfed by our final entry, by the climax of this lesson, by:
Number 1: The Known Universe
We have finally come full circle. How could the Known Universe be the biggest object in the universe, you ask? Because the Known Universe is that which is enwrapped by the tentacles of our knowledge. Time. Mass. Energy. These are but our brain’s binding agents. Its fibers. Ligaments. Even is- and is-not-ness are mere means of connection. Yet they are incomplete, for our perception is incomplete. Surely all we have cast our senses upon are the smallest slivers of all that truly is which is beyond the compass of grammar. Suddenly the Known Universe, which is infinitely bigger than any concept of bigness, is infinitely small compared to the infinite times infinity which is total totality.
Look at it this way, Alexandros. As far as we can tell today on this eve of the Kronia, the Known Universe is flat. Yes, there appear to be peaks and valleys so to speak, mountain tops of galactic accretion disks and oceanic trenches of self-consuming supernovas, but all these average out to a generally coin-shaped eternity. A flat universe. Pause now and ask your daemon what she thinks about all this. Does she whisper that this is fair and reasonable, or does she sow doubt?
Mine? Ha! You know my daemon is the most doubtful of them all! But yes, in this she is no different. Look to your own experience, Aristotle son of Nicomachus, she whispers. Your world appears flat to one on the ground, but every thoughtful man from Pythagoras on knows this is false, that our world is round, that all its superficial deviations nonetheless constitute a sphere. My daemon hints that the universe is the same way. Which can only mean, Alexandros, that the eternity we see and deduce from is but a flat-seeming fraction of the all that truly is, the Known Universe just a single floor tile on the surface of the much vaster Actual Universe.
So you see, Alexandros, how the head of this presentation now consumes its own tail, an astronomical ouroboros on this final day of class. In our quest for what is greatest, we arrive instead at what is smallest. Again. Could the ratio of the Known Universe over the Actual Universe be smaller than that of one single quark over the Known Universe?
I’d like to know too.
You are still small, Alexandros, but you will not be forever. All you see in all directions will be yours. You will inherit these walls and this garden and that palace and the kingdom about it. Like the universe itself, you will strive to enlarge yourself, taking what you have learned and testing its breadth of application. How many mountains and rivers and deserts will your techniques surpass? How many languages learned and persuaded with and when that fails how many foreign kings will be conquered?
The day you were born, my pupil, I witnessed an eagle drop a lion cub into the lap of a napping watchman. The omen was clear. You will build a mighty empire, one as far east as India and as far west as Spain, I predict. Such a simple notion on its surface, is it not? An empire? One tidy idea full of infinity, an atom packed with planets.
And with that final paradox, Alexandros, I take my summer leave. We’re done here. Enjoy the feast and all hail divine Kronos, God of Time, who waits for none of us.
Dan Tremaglio is the author of Half an Arc & Artifacts & Then the Other Half. His stories have appeared in numerous publications, including F(r)iction, Gravel, Literary Orphans, and Flash Fiction Magazine, and twice been named a finalist for the Calvino Prize. He lives in Seattle where he teaches creative writing and literature at Bellevue College and is a senior editor for the journal Belletrist.