Daily Archives: July 19, 2012

Manhattan and Petermann Glacier: Physical and Mental Space

Front of Petermann Glacier 2009 from the CCGS Henry Larsen. [Photo Credit: Pete Davis, Oxford University]

Bob Collins writes with wit and eloquence at Minnesota Public Radio about Petermann Glacier and Manhattan:

Why is it always about you, New York?

This week an iceberg “twice the size of Manhattan” broke off from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier.

What else is twice the size of Manhattan? Just about everywhere else. Manhattan is tiny at only 22 square miles. Manhattan isn’t even the size of Woodbury.

You know what’s bigger than the iceberg? Minneapolis. It’s 53 square miles. But “an iceberg that would easily fit into the boundaries of Minneapolis” (and you, too, Saint Paul) doesn’t quite cut it in the drama department.

Why use Manhattan as the measure of size? Because it suggests something is huge that is not, in fact, as huge as we’re led to believe. We think of Manhattan as big because of the size of the buildings there and the number of people there. The iceberg actually would’ve fit nicely into the Bronx. But people don’t think of the Bronx as huge.

This blog, Icy Seas, compares the entire area to the number of Manhattans. But it brings up an important point that a collapsing iceberg the size of Minneapolis obscures: Most of the melting of glaciers is occurring from below.

I agree. Manhattan is tiny, I walked its streets. But do not all numbers and measures contain or evoke emotions? Drudgery is one, drama another. Stay with me for an example: the color red is a wave that is 0.000000645 meters (=645 nanometers or nm) long. What comes to mind, when I talk about reflectances at 645 nm? Nothing or just a blank stare, perhaps? But if I say “RED,” we may engage and argue. Yet 645 nm is more precise than “red,” because there are many shades of red while there are no such shades of 645 nm. Furthermore, red triggers emotions: just ask a Red Sox fan.

Manhattan is a huge place in my mind, just as Bob Collins says it is. For me it is not the height of buildings or the number of people, but it is Manhattan’s tapestry of world cultures, skin colors, styles of clothing, languages, foods, and histories made anew each day. It is all in our minds, it is a symbol. More people can relate to Manhattan better than they can relate to 58 square kilometers. Most people can relate to the color RED with its dramatic emotions, but few can relate to 645 nm with its precise physics. There is beauty in both.

Shades of red and blues … Vincent Van Gough.