Monday, June 3, 2013

What's the Big Idea?

I’m on my way home from a children’s book conference. It’s a long flight, and I’m struck by how abstract my grasp of distance becomes when I’m traveling at 500 miles an hour. I’d probably have to walk (and swim) the 4,000 miles to really appreciate how far I’ll travel over the next few hours.

A casual preoccupation with scale — both spatial and temporal — began even before I became an author. It was my own children’s constant questions about the size of things, however, that focused my interest and led to one of my first books. Biggest, Strongest, Fastest is a book of animal superlatives. As I worked on that book, I was confronted with what would become a recurring issue: the limitations of the printed page when presenting things of large or small size. I used a simple scale reference — the silhouette of a human figure or hand next to an image of an elephant or flea — to help the reader take the true measure of an animal that wouldn’t fit on the page or one too small to see clearly if not enlarged. In another title, Actual Size, I employed life-size illustrations of animals or parts of animals to get the point across. As long as a subject’s size allows for comparison to something as familiar as the human body, these approaches work pretty well. Once something gets too large or small to relate to something familiar that can be experienced directly, it gets trickier. Similar challenges arise when dealing with big numbers or very long or short periods of time.

Of course, problems of expressing and grasping extremes of scale didn’t originate with the picture book. Millions of years of natural selection operating on our human and pre-human ancestors have favored perceptual abilities that respond to things that aid or threaten our survival. Food, mates, and danger, in most cases, ranged from the size of a small insect to the size of an elephant. A distant mountain or approaching storm represented the upper size limit of something in the physical world that could be directly understood. Many things that were larger or farther away, such as the sun or moon, were eventually incorporated into superstition or myth.

Similar limitations exist in the realm of the temporal. We are limited in our ability to intuitively understand periods of time briefer than, say, the blink of an eye or longer than a few human generations. This hasn’t really changed. We may have an intellectual grasp of the interval that passes when light travels from our computer screen to our eyes at 186,000 miles per second or the 65 million years that have passed since an asteroid collision incinerated much of the earth, but I suspect that none of us have anything other than a metaphorical grasp of these spans of time. 

For most of our history, these limitations weren’t important (which is why they exist). But much contemporary science is concerned with objects and events that lie far outside our perceptual abilities. The best science writing — for both children and adults — can provide a vivid (if limited) sense of many things that we can’t actually experience. The book, however, is the same medium that was available to daVinci and Newton. On one hand, this speaks to the value and enduring power of the printed page. But also makes me (a dyed-in-the-wool ink-on-paper person) wonder about the possibilities of new media. The to-this-point-underwhelming (to me, at any rate) ebook will no doubt be the 8-track tape player of the near future. As digital media evolves, however, they may make it possible to explain and demonstrate phenomena that are beyond the capability of the traditional book.

I’m keeping my options open.

(After this was posted, a friend sent an interesting link related to scale. It's worth checking out:

1 comment:

Vicki Cobb said...

Interesting and thoughtful, Steve. One other limitation of print is the inability to represent three dimensions and motion. When I studied embryology, I had to mentally construct the anatomy of an organism from serial sections, adjacent slices moving from front to back. Many physics concepts use math as a language to describe how variables change over time. At BEA I met a young man who has developed an app that you put over the printed (or onscreen) image and the image pops up in 3D and moves. He's experimenting with one of my books. So we shall see.