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All Things Great and Small
Many years ago I attended a star party at a remote observatory in the mountains of West Texas. An astronomer stationed at a telescope pointing towards a distant nebula told me, as I stepped up to the eyepiece, that the sight within was so delicate that I ought to look away immediately, in order to pin the fairy’s-breath of dust in my mind.
What he meant, I think, was that the nebula would be more vivid as a memory.
Later that night, a second astronomer warned me, gravely, that the celestial object in the eyepiece of his telescope would be the farthest-away thing I’d ever see. I remember resenting the assumption. It felt very final. Who knows what else I might see, in this long life? How much further I might look? Anyway, when I looked, it was tiny.
I recently dove back into Richard Matheson’s 1956 sci-fi classic, The Shrinking Man, the film version of which has an absorbingly existential freakout of an ending. The shrinking man, having battled a gargantuan spider and carrying a pin as a spear, scrambles through a basement grate into his front yard—now, to him, a jungle.
“So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite,” he muses as his body melts into the grass, into the soil, into the unbounded vastness of the microworld. He dwindles beyond the visible, but he still matters, as all small things do. In the end, only a voice remains. “To God,” it shouts, “there is no zero! I still exist! ” You just know the studio must have hated this:
From the novelist Stephen Millhauser’s meditation on the eternal fascination of miniatures:
“The universe is too large for us. Death is too large for us. Death hums in every stone. The great walls soar, the windows are too high. But suddenly the walls descend, the windows are little spaces we kneel to peer through. The solar system contracts to an orrery. I am under the spell of the miniature.”
Battling a cold, I’ve been curled up in bed this week, reading and re-reading my favorite Borges stories, sometimes aloud. I first read Borges as a young high-schooler, and his allusions to literature (sometimes real, sometimes imagined, always unknown to me) and to winding streets, labyrinths, and libraries in faraway cities gave me a romantic sense of the vastness of the world and the depth of time. In The Book of Sand, a Bible salesman muses, “If space is infinite, we may be at any point in space. If time is infinite, we may be at any point in time.” The Incredible Shrinking Man might nod.
The Aleph, of course, is perfect; its description of the infinite is the best long list in literature—I have the above paragraph pinned to a corkboard in my office—but this time around I was also tickled by some later, maybe lesser, stories, like his homage to H.P. Lovecraft, “There Are More Things,” which manages to make the description of some weird furniture hit a terrifying note (Borges himself called the story a “lamentable fruit,” which I’m guessing was meant to be self-deprecating).
Finally, here are a few recent pieces of longform writing from me. As always, I feel totally incapable of describing my work succinctly; I always think of David Lynch struggling to articulate Mulholland Drive to a reporter, saying, “the film is it—it’s it.”
Against Scale, for Grow Magazine
This is an essay about the difference between growth and scalability. Growth in nature is heterogenous, defined by transformation and change, while scalability—a human concept—occurs stepwise, relying on hierarchy and on the isolation of elements stripped of history and context. To get at this idea, I talk about wildflowers, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s nonscalability theory, the tyranny of Google Earth’s cosmic zooms, and materials science, which reveals that the world is porous down to the atom. At the nanoscale, there are no hard lines, only interfaces: sites where different materials come together and arrange themselves into new, hybrid states of matter. This is something I learned from the nanotechnologist Laura Tripaldi’s incredible book, Parallel Minds.
This is a brief history of the corporate presentation, from the World’s Fair-inspired “Vitarama” used by the Seagrams Gin company in the 1940s to the dazzling, high-production-value 35mm slideshows of the 1970s and finally, to PowerPoint, which gave the whole industry a bad name. While writing this piece I had the pleasure of a prolonged email correspondence with Robert Gaskins, the famously reclusive creator of PowerPoint, who left the software industry very early and became a world expert in antique concertinas. My kind of guy.
I’m trying to be less precious about sending emails!
P.S. - YACHT has a new song out this week called “Two Heads”! Give it a listen.