🛠️  Hacking with Hamlet  đź‘‘

What does it feel like to hold the world?

Growing up in New York, I remember learning in school about the Finger Lakes region of the state. My teachers told me the Native American story of how the lakes came to be: that the long, narrow, parallel lakes were formed by the loving touch of the Creator’s hand. That image moved me, even at the age of six or seven, and even now from time to time I try to remind myself that the land we walk on is—what else?—blessed.

But there is another way that image has affected me. Since my childhood, perhaps once a month my mind has looked out at the world and wondered: what would it feel like to hold that in my hand?

I think about this when I walk around in big cities; I wonder if the skyscrapers will be sharp and prickly and painful on my fingertips. Or, with a hand the scale of the world, will the buildings be more like the fuzz on a kiwi-fruit, barely perceptible and yielding immediately to the touch?

Once in a bookstore I found a globe that was textured to show mountain ranges, and I couldn’t help run my hand over it again and again. But was it to scale? And even if it was—the smooth bumps of the plastic are surely nothing like the craggy reality of a mountain? Would the masses of snow on the mountaintops melt at my touch, the way lumpy Boston snowflakes vanish on my warm, pink tongue?

What might the oceans feel like? Are they deep enough to stick a finger in, or are they shallow puddles you can splash about in, like water you’ve spilled on your kitchen counter-top? What do deserts feel like, and forests? On long drives in New England, I imagine the swathes of conifer feeling like toothbrushes on my thumb. Could you clean your tongue with a forest of redwoods? (A colleague at MIT once told me that it is a shocking fact about the human mind that we can look around and imagine what it would feel like to lick any of the objects we see. I looked around, and agreed. But as I write this, I cannot at all imagine what it would feel like to lick the planet.)

I think also about temperature. Different parts of the planet have very different surface temperatures. Would I register the differences? Once, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, I learned about the thermal grill illusion, where two adjacent coils of different temperatures cause the percept of a single, painfully-hot coil. Would a hot day in San Antonio and a chilly day in Vancouver conspire to scald my palm?

Then I start thinking bigger. What is the tactile sensation of having the whole Earth cradled in your hands? Does the Earth feel hard and earthy, like a rock? Or does it feel crisp and fragile, like an egg? When you crack a hard-boiled egg, there is a moment when the shattered shell remains attached to the white by a thin membrane—is that how tectonic plates feel? It is tempting, but I’m not so sure. In science class I learned that the Earth has a thin crust and a deeper mantle. Deeper still, there is a liquid core and then a solid core. Does that mean that holding a planet is more like holding a freshly-baked apple pie? If I weren’t careful, would the crust crumble and crack in my hands, and would it then ooze out its hot core? I think about Atlas, in front of the Rockefeller Center. The sphere he holds is light and rigid—indeed, hollow—but I imagine it instead deforming and sagging into his shoulders under its own prodigious weight.

What does the moon feel like? I intuitively imagine the moon to be a styrofoam ball; and yet somehow I imagine it also to be cooler and weightier than the Earth, like holding a crystal ball wrapped in white velvet.

What about a gas giant? Is it possible to hold one, or would it be like holding steam?

The sun?

What happens if you squeeze?

I think it is possible to answer many of these questions—hypothetical though they may be. We can measure how tall a skyscraper is compared to the diameter of the Earth, and then scale it down to the size of a kiwi-fruit. We can build models, we can compute shear stresses and bulk moduli and try to work out a reasonable proxy for the haptic experience of holding a planet. Writers like Randall Monroe have built careers around answering questions like these—often in ways that are compelling and inspire young people to study the sciences. I endorse all of this with all my heart.

But it has been decades, now, and I still haven’t run the numbers myself. I think some part of me conceives of this as secret knowledge, haptics off-limits, percepts I am simply not meant to experience. The fun has been in not knowing—the fun has been in wondering.