A Matter of Scale
I have found two things especially interesting about the recently announced discovery of the Higgs boson. One is the way that scientists express their degree of certainty. They say they are positive this thing exists to the “five sigma” level - a measure of certainty where there’s only a 0.00003% chance that the effect is not real. This means that the likelihood that they are mistaken is about as good as the chance of twenty consecutive coin flips all coming up heads.
Now I have lived my entire life at a comfortable arm’s length from science and mathematics. But I do have some familiarity with coin flipping, and it tickles me to hear such portentous news expressed in a lexicon I can understand. Still, twenty doesn’t seem like all that much…
The second thing I like about this discovery is the particle itself. The name is, well, cute. Its elusive behavior is sort of charming. Although scientists refer to it as a card-carrying particle, no one has actually observed one. They are thought to exist for less than a septillionth of a second, so don’t blink. And although its existence is only inferred, it still packs about 130 times the wallop of a proton. And it isn’t afraid of hard work. In the famous E=mc2 trope, it is the Higgs boson that does the heavy lifting.
But the real reason I’m paying so much attention to this little critter is that it makes me think about scale. I seem to recall reading someplace a considered opinion that the typical human being falls almost precisely halfway along the size continuum between the smallest objects in the known universe - subatomic particles, and the largest – black holes. That range is so vast that minor variations, the short bagger at the grocery store or the tall kid that plays center field, don’t shift the balance. We are all squarely in the middle along with dust motes, cufflinks, baguettes and battleships.
Size-wise, I have as little in common with the Higgs boson as I do with the Andromeda Galaxy. I have much more in common with the things I can see around me, especially people and the things they make.
This summer, my family and I enjoyed a short outing to the Sierra. We spent some time prowling around the “Gold Country” and when you do that, you are sure to see a lot of big old rusty machines. Some of them were built for hauling and chopping trees, others for pumping or boiling water, and still others have no purpose apparent to my eye but to make a grand display.
When you touch them, lift their creakily moving parts, or crawl around on them, you can’t help but be impressed by their mass. Someone, or many some ones and their draft animals, expended a lot of energy to get these things into the foothills where they could be used to produce gold or lumber. The old steam locomotives and decrepit cars that still populate the high forests sit on snippets of rail that once formed the web of commerce for the populace of this region. They are all big, heavy, hard pieces of machinery, and striking in their scale. They dwarf the bystander and must have required a lot of ingenuity and the strength of hundreds to build and maintain.
When I touch these machines, and think about the world in which they functioned, I can’t help but feel that they represent, or at least suggest some kind of limit as to how big people can make things. You can see the old photographs that show dedicatory ribbons being cut, final spikes being driven and inaugural switches being thrown. They are all filled with crowds of people who seem to be as impressed by the magnitude and complexity of these behemoths as I am. And yet in the grand scale of size, I know that these big machines and people all huddle with me in the middle, the point of equipoise.
Scale in our time is often a matter of repetition rather than sheer size. The digital age has transformed the way we think of proportion. A byte would be lost in the shadow of a Higgs boson. It has no dimension at all. But put enough of them together in the effortless language of algorithms, and you get social networks encompassing vast swaths of the human population. Line them up in endlessly varied processions of 1’s and 0’s and you get motion pictures, unconstrained by the limits of physical reality, that awe us with enough scope and scale to challenge the imagination. Our world is awash in an abundance of pictures, songs, numbers and words. Things are infinitely numerous because it is so easy to make so many of them, and they extend beyond the cognitive horizon in every direction.
We have crossed a threshold where size is less a matter of dimension than it is a state of being. Propagation trumps proportion. My old habit of looking in one direction to see things bigger than myself and the opposite way to see things smaller doesn’t make sense in this new reality. And yet I still want a way to feel proportion in terms of heft and space, volume and distance.
That, to me, is the argument in favor of rusty old logging winches. I think it is good to have things in our lives that we can run our hands over, that we can put our arms around, that we can lift or not. It is important to experience smallness and bigness in the way that mankind has always known it. I think that is the argument in favor of hoary old traditions, fusty old folksongs, twice-told tales – they help us to experience life on a manageable scale. They connect us to a world winnowed of its complexity and reduced to what is important. We all benefit from the ease and opportunity of the boundless digital reality, but we also need to locate ourselves in the landscape of those who have come before us. It’s a matter of scale.
- David Parr, Artistic Director