This piece was originally published in the New Atlantis.
How hot is it outside today? And why did you think of a number as the answer, not something you felt?
A feeling is too subjective, too hard to communicate. But a number is easy to pass on. It seems to stand on its own, apart from any person’s experience. It’s a fact.
Of course, the heat of the day is not the only thing that has slipped from being thought of as an experience to being thought of as a number. When was the last time you reckoned the hour by the height of the sun in the sky? When was the last time you stuck your head out a window to judge the air’s damp? At some point in history, temperature, along with just about everything else, moved from a quality you observe to a quantity you measure. It’s the story of how facts came to be in the modern world.