a brief reflection on unknown quantities

Tonight I went to a nice talk about particle physics, and observational scale: the idea that how we observe something, and at what scale, changes what we see. A simple idea, fundamental to art and science, often forgotten in other areas.

I am fond of the human scale, myself. If I am honest about my understanding of the world, theory is largely lost on me, as are physical things only seen with sophisticated instruments. If there is a chance of sighting something with glass alone — whether far or near — I feel I can get some kind of handle on it; it seems my capacity for conceptual understanding is firmly rooted in the technology of the 18th century. Not that I disbelieve the particle physicists, the radio astronomers, the quantum chemists: but I only feel polite curiosity at their results, not true wonder. (This is, parenthetically, one of the reasons I doubt I’ll ever really get a proper handle on the physical workings of computers; though I grasp the general idea of a semiconductor, understanding it seems a different matter. But give me high-level code — again, a human scale — and I do just fine).

Complexity is not the issue; scale is. Give me trees, or flukes; moon craters or ants, steel or ash. Something visible; something tangible. This is what I have always thought my relationship to science was; dirt on the knees, cells under a microscope, everything else for others with a stronger capacity to believe in equations and shadows on walls, who can tell the rest of us stories about the very small and far away.

I have thought this. But if it’s true that I like the concrete, then why have I spent so much time on the truly intangible: trying to decipher the meaning of words, the feeling of agreement, the nature of love?

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One Response to a brief reflection on unknown quantities

  1. Leslie M-B says:

    Phoebe, this is lovely. I’ve found myself thinking along similar lines lately.

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