Infinitesimal provides a window on the infinite

December 14, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

I THINK OF MYSELF as a big-picture sort of guy, but I have great respect for people like my friend George, who has spent much of his life gazing intently into worlds most of us can barely even see.

He is a watchmaker by avocation, and over the years he has created miniature mechanical marvels that cram as many parts as there are in a jet engine into a space the size of a thimble.

Once he showed me a particularly complicated movement called a tourbillion, which he had installed in an old pocket-watch case.

From the dial side, the watch appeared completely immobile. But when he turned it over, the mechanism was a frenzy of activity, with legions of tiny wheels, levers and gears whirling away madly to produce the imperceptible motion of the hands on the dial.

This is the fascination of the microcosm, a theme being explored in "At the Threshold of Vision," an exhibition of very small artworks on display at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, through Jan. 4.

Americans tend to dismiss the small as insignificant, but perhaps that is only because history and geography have imbued us with an ideology of gigantism.

In Switzerland, a tiny country, the small is taken very seriously indeed; surely it is no coincidence that the art of watchmaking reached its highest development there.

The very large and very small are markers for stages of social as well as technical development.

In the simplest societies, the largest and smallest manufactured objects differ in size by only a few orders of magnitude -- the difference, say, between a flint arrowhead and a mud hut.

The emergence of more advanced forms of social and political organization are paralleled by an ever-widening gap between the largest and smallest objects.

The industrial age produced the Brooklyn Bridge and nearly invisible steel-alloy hairsprings for watches. Post-industrial technology has given us linked radio-telescope arrays with effective apertures half the diameter of the Earth and computer chip microcircuits only a few molecules wide.

Innovation has consisted chiefly of pushing back the boundaries of the largest and smallest physical objects the human mind is capable of conceiving and manipulating.

Thus the invention of the optical telescope and the microscope in the 17th century were watershed events in human history. The calculation of the first accurate astronomical distances and the discovery of microbial life expanded the knowable universe by at least three orders of magnitude in either direction.

In our own time, the large radio telescope array and the particle accelerator have enabled us to probe to the edges of the universe and deep into the subatomic realm of matter.

Ironically, all this has led to a rediscovery of humanity itself as the ratio of all things.

We are about as much bigger than a single atom in our bodies as we are smaller than a star like our sun. And we now recognize that all the heavier elements of which we are composed had their origin in the core of some ancient stellar furnace that exploded eons ago. We are, all of us, literally bits of stardust.

In earlier epochs, the very small and the very large alike were the province of artists -- the designers of the pyramids or the royal goldsmiths of Byzantium. In the modern era, science has taken over the task of rolling back the frontiers of scale, but that has hardly diminished the sense of wonder and awe inspired by the microcosmos.

There is a famous poem by Pablo Neruda in which the image of the watchmaker peering into his diminutive domain is a metaphor for our intimations of mortality.

But for George, I think, the infinitesimal is rather a kind of window on the infinite. His professional career as an engineer involved managing huge pieces of dangerous machinery. The minuscule world inside his watches exists at the other end of the scale.

The microcosm within his watches is a supremely orderly and utterly unthreatening realm, and I like to imagine that he finds there a certain solitary peacefulness, balm for the restless soul and a joyfulness in the minute intricacies of an ideal universe that approaches the sacred.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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