Monday, January 30, 2012

On Scale

I recently encountered this "Scale of the Universe" widget: an animation tool that places the human body in the center of a sliding scale of dimensions ranging from the very big—the estimated size of the universe—to the unimaginable small of Quantum foam and string theory. Everything in-between is visualized comparatively: pollen grains set against Ultraviolet light and the width of human hair, mountain ranges against galactic distances.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Cloud Prototype No. 1 (2001), fiberglass and titanium alloy foil

The schema of extreme polarities in size reminded me of the two scientific images—an image of a cell and of an exploding star—I found so striking when thinking about impossible images. In many ways science works with scales that stretch the limits of the imaginable, or by using mathematics and data as forms of abstraction to manage the quantitatively big or the inconceivably small.

But conceiving scale concretely, as a visual image, can matter a lot in social ways. The first images of the earth from space created a point of view that had not existed before the 1960s, even though they described a concept that had been comprehended for centuries—a post-Copernican universe, in which the Earth is a planet among others. But those images entered the collective social imaginary instantly and viscerally, as something quantitatively new. In an odd way, the Apollo photographs didn’t de-centre the Earth into a universe wider than we can imagine so much as re-center it for our vision. By placing the whole Earth in the center of the frame of television images beamed to one of the first global audiences, those photographs let us see the planet in an entirety new way: as an entity. Many descriptions of these images invoke a sense of the fragility of the Earth, and they have been credited with contributing to a ecological consciousness.
For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.
-Ulf Merbold

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word round meant until I saw Earth from space.
-Aleksei Leonov
 It looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.
-James Irwin   
What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth.
-Norman Cousins

Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dry as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming, membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.
-Lewis Thomas
Lunar Orbiter 1, first view of the earth from the moon, 23 Aug 1966
Apollo 17 Crew, “Blue Marble,” first photograph of the earth in full view, 7 Dec 1972

It strikes me that these kinds of visualizations are an important part of what 'art' offers to science. The material presence of the image—its texture, its luminosity—can translate the implications of a discovery with another kind of intensity. The slider in the animated graph performs a similar, if less sublime function, because it situates the human body in the center of a universe that vastly exceeds bodily scale. Moving up and down the graphic, you start to get a sense of a relation between the big and the small that makes the human scale—which is, after all, the necessary scale of our perception—seem like only a necessary fiction. And this perhaps offers the non-scientist a point of entry into the abstract scales of sciences.


  1. One of the main reasons why I became a biochemist is because I loved following the path of effects from the tiniest biologically-relevant particles (electrons, protons etc.) up through the molecular scale, on to cellular, systemic, and finally organismal levels. I was actually teaching a class yesterday where we looked at how the shape of the outermost electron orbital in the iron of haemoglobin is vital for blood to work at all! Your post sums this sense of wonder up perfectly!

    I'd love to see some kind of physical art exhibition showing these senses of scale - I'm not sure how it would work but if it can be done then it would be fantastic!

  2. That's a lovely connection between biology and physics! I'd like to start looking at artists and art projects that work this topography in future posts.


    Geologists at UC Berkeley have created a ChronoZoom animation that lets a viewer scroll in and out of time-scales in much the same way that the Scale of the Universe allows a navigation of space.

    Check it out! I'm curious to hear other comments on the difference between navigating 'time' vs. 'scape.' My own reaction is to find the temporal zoom more counter-intuitive, and thought-provoking in quite a different way. I definitely have to concentrate more on what's going on. More background information at the link below:

    1. There are a couple of ways in which "zooming out in time" relates closely to zooming in or out in space.

      The earlier one goes in the universe's history, the more dense it gets and therefore the smaller the things that are relevant.

      Similarly, structure forms in the universe hierarchically, so small structures form first, then larger ones.

      This will probably become a broken promise, but I will try to write a quick post about this soon.

  4. I really like the sentiment of this post, which I'll get to in a bit more detail below, but first a small gripe. You say early in this post that science uses "mathematics and data as forms of abstraction to manage the quantitatively big or the inconceivably small". I find it interesting that you use the word manage. This particular use of language suggests to me that the scientist is using these tools reluctantly, that he/she would prefer less abstract tools but that the big and small scales forces him/her not to. But, this isn't really the case. Science also uses mathematics and data to study things that are very easily described by less abstract tools. This is getting close again to where I think there is a disconnect between science and artistic culture that attempts to interact with science. We use mathematics and data to study things because it can tell us stuff about those things that nothing else can, and the stuff it tells us is wonderful (as in literally - full of wonder). It isn't out of reluctant necessity that a physicist turns to mathematics to describe an event, but gleeful joy. This is something I've harped on a bit about now, but efforts to take the wonder that exists in understanding the patterns, symmetries, conservation laws, relationships, etc, between mathematically defined quantities and look for a picture that is beautiful, or that just looks wonderful certainly has more than zero merit, but it really is missing the *most* beautiful aspects of modern physics.

    We do definitely use images, we don't do science with blindfolds on, and often we use those images in a literal sense too (i.e. it is an image of something real), but more often than not the images are abstractions. It isn't the image that is beautiful, but what it represents. This scale of the universe tool is sort of along these lines, but it is such a miniscule step. It is taking something that is already easily felt and experienced by a person, distance scales, and showing you in a nice way, what really big and really smale distance scales are like. It's cute. But the true wonders are things like entropy, and Hilbert space, and gauge symmetries and the curvature and symmetries of space-time. And these things aren't speculative ideas, but real concepts that are necessary to describe thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, the electric/nuclear forces and gravity respectively.

    Like honestly, (and I do mean to be a little patronising, to ram the point home) seeing a non-physicist get excited by that scale of the universe tool and how the things it shows are wonderful, is like being a builder who helped construct the Sydney Opera House and watching a child play with lego, or something. I mean lego is cool and all, but it's nothing compared to building a whole building. I'm struggling to properly capture the sentiment.

    I guess it's just that expressing those abstract things without maths is hard. It must be, or people would have already done it.

    1. The one thing that I've encountered (or one of the things, but the one that has really stuck with me) that kind of did manage to bridge this gap was actually a book you recommended to me, The Crying of Lot 49, which somehow manages to capture something of the essence of entropy without the maths or long-winded explanations.

      It isn't a perfect metaphor for entropy, but the unravelling that happens to the narrative as Oedipa tries to solve the mysteries she confronts does express something of the essence of entropy - in a way that is more than just cute and, simultaneously, still good literature.

  5. What I really do agree with and like is the ideas you express of what art can offer science. It offers the way for science to embed itself in culture and become a part of everyone's (or at least lots of people's) everyday life.

    The moon landings and the dawn of space age, etc are incredible. They are sincerely one of humankind's most significant achievements. Everything you wrote about it is true, especially the way it didn't just affect the engineers and scientists who put people up there, it also affected society. And changed it, irreversibly. I can't imagine not being conscious of those images of the Earth. I grew up with those images, so it is a part of my self identity to know the Earth like that.

    I had thought before about how great it was that everyone got worked up about the moon landings, but I hadn't ever properly considered that seeing those images also changed people (and society) in a profound way.

    But yeah, I really like the idea that art can cause the "collective social imagination" to concretely experience some sort of abstract science. And the moon landings are a perfect example. There must be a way to remove the abstract from gauge theories... or at least some of the abstract... and to make them an encounter-able experience.