20.483 matters of scale and imagination

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 3 Mar 2007 09:27:29 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 483.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 03 Mar 2007 09:16:59 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: scale and imagination

For a vivid idea of the range of human perception within the scale of
the physical world, see "Secret Worlds: The Universe Within", a Java
toy demonstrated at
I count 3 orders of magnitude (from 10**1 to 10**-1 meters) in a
scale of 40 without any kind of prosthetic. Perhaps someone here can
provide a count beyond those 3 orders of magnitude of actual images
we are capable of generating with current physical systems. Do we
have photographs of the earth from 10**9 meters? If so, we would not
be seeing the moon's orbit as a band of light, so even at that
magnitude imagination becomes the more powerful instrument, as it
were. Can we in fact see DNA nucleotide building blocks (at 10**-9
meters) with the right sort of microscopy?

It is interesting to reflect on the role of computing in this sweep
from macro- to microcosmic -- and the sort of childhood, with its
imagination, that is shaped in play with such toys from the
beginning. It is easy to dig up the old cliche about yet another blow
to human vanity, following in the wake of Copernicus, Darwin, Freud,
but that seems a jaded and not very imaginative reaction, and not the
sort a child or child-like person would have. Nor would it seem a
blow to the love of literature, properly understood, to use our tools
to zoom down to the levels beneath which a literary perception is
formed nor up to the body of all literature (that Frye inferred but,
I'd guess, not even he could actually have in view). Nor, perhaps, to
probe in consequence of having the tools we now have where physical
nature and cultural nurture meet.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Sat Mar 03 2007 - 04:42:42 EST

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