Shrinking Man, Expanding Mind

by Joe Orman

[Originally published in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, December 1999]


The Incredible Shrinking Man gazes at the universe through a window screen.

If you have ever seen the 1957 science fiction movie "The Incredible Shrinking Man," you discovered that behind the seemingly exploitative title was a movie of considerable skill and intelligence. There is plenty of action and suspense in the story of a man (played by Grant Williams) who finds himself shrinking due to exposure to an unexplained radiation, becomes trapped in the cellar of his own home, and battles a giant-size cat and spider for survival. But the film's most memorable scene is the final one, in which the hero has shrunk enough to escape from the cellar through a window screen, and gazes up at the night sky from his garden. We see the moon and stars, then, as he shrinks to invisibility, our view expands to take in distant nebula and galaxies. I can still recall the vivid impression this scene and its narration made on me when I first saw it, more than 30 years ago:

Although the screenplay is attributed to Richard Matheson (based on his novel "The Shrinking Man"), director Jack Arnold admitted that he wrote the ending speech and added the religious references. Although some may find it overly dramatic, this scene, like the climax of "2001: A Space Odyssey," is one of the most transcendent moments in science fiction film.

The climax of Matheson's novel is much less metaphysical, emphasizing the shrinking man's discovery that the stars still appear the same ( "He saw them as any man saw them, and that brought a deep contentment to him. Small he might be, but the earth itself was small compared to this."). Even in a movie with so much questionable science, this makes one wonder: wouldn't our eyes lose their ability to see the stars if they were much smaller?

Ultimately, the questions that the movie really wants us to consider are philosophical ones. How does our relative size affect how we perceive our environment and our place in it? How much does our sense of self-worth depend on physical size and strength, as opposed to intelligence? How do we measure ourselves against a universe of seemingly infinite size? Ultimately, are all of our struggles for existence meaningful on the cosmic scale?

As he dwindles to nothingness, the hero discovers that the answer is one not of despair, but elation. The peace and reassurance that the shrinking man gets from viewing the night sky, is something any astronomer can appreciate.

Revised: December 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Joe Orman
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