Sunday, June 19, 2011

Looking Closely

The campouflage-clad caterpillar up there -- in the first stages of its metamorphosis -- is evidence of the truth of a quotation I've been trying to track down for days: "Everything is interesting if looked at closely enough."

I thought the line was Emily Dickinson's, but a search of her poetry doesn't turn it up.  The closest thing to an attribution I can find credits the thought to physicist, circle-drummer, Tuva throat-singer, and all-around polymath Richard Feynman, and I'm happy with that, since I admire Feynman enormously.

And the opinion is one I share.  For example:

This is a fly covered with dew.  The photo was taken around 4 AM by a Polish man in his 80s who gets up in the middle of the night and goes into the forest, carrying a big old 4x5 camera on a tripod just to photograph dew.  He's one of my heroes because he's interested.

We miss so much when we damp down our interest, when we're satisfied to see things at a distance.  When we become more interested in ourselves and our own reflections than we are in the world of things and ideas.

Here's another world that coexists with ours, the world of the ladybug (at least, that's what it is from the ladybug's perspective.)  Worth slowing down for?  I think so.

To leave the insect world behind for a moment, consider this:

We all take for granted that snowflakes are crystalline masterpieces, but we owe that perception to one man, Jericho "Snowflake" Bentley, a self-educated farmer who, in 1885, became the first person ever to photograph a snowflake successfully and who went on to shoot more than  5000 of them, never finding any two alike.  (We know now that snowflakes are not unique, and the world isn't actually a poorer place for that -- it is, after all, knowledge.)  Bentley is another of my heroes.  Five thousand snowflakes?  That's a man who didn't bore easily.

I think boredom would be a slap in the face to creation if it weren't simply an admission that one considers oneself more interesting than the universe, that one sees the universe as nothing more than a reflection of oneself, and that one has become tired of oneself.  And I can see why.  These are tiresome people.

And finally, I've wondered for years how astronomers know there are giant black holes at the center of most galaxies (ours, for example), since black holes are by definition invisible -- their gravitational force is so great that light can't escape it -- and since, even if black holes were visible, the centers of galaxies are dense clusters of brilliant matter that obscures individual structures.

Turns out it's dust.  Black holes suck in immense quantities of dust, and each of those trillions of grains of dust emits a tiny whine of radiation as it spirals at near-infinite speed toward the hole.  Scientists pick up a faint halo of radiation from dust that tells them where these gigantic, ravenous structures are devouring everything within reach.

Identifying black holes from dust from billions of light years away.  That's looking closely.


  1. This is freaky, Tim. No, not your piece. That's terrific. What I'm talking about is an email I received shortly before your post went up containing one of those "please send on" stories that you never know whether or not is true. This one I've learned is true, for it won the Washington Post a Pulitzer.

    It may be that I am the only one on earth who's never seen it before, but the coincidence makes it fated that I post it--and receive the promised great spiritual rewards by forwarding it on. Here goes.

    On a cold January morning in 2007 at a metro station in Washington, DC a man spent forty-five minutes playing six Bach pieces on a violin. Approximately two-thousand people passed him by, most on their way to work.

    At about three minutes into his playing a middle-aged man noticed the music, slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds before hurrying on. A minute later the violinist received his first dollar; a woman threw money into a hat without stopping.

    At six minutes a young man leaned against a wall to listen, but looked at his watch and left.

    At ten minutes a three-year-old boy stopped but his mother tugged him away. The child stopped again to watch and the mother pulled him away harder, but as the child moved on to keep up with his mother his head remained turned toward the musician. It was the same story with several other children who stopped to listen. Without exception, the parent forced the child to move on quickly.

    Through forty-five minutes of continuous play only six people stopped and listened for even a short time and twenty passersby dropped money in the hat without slowing their pace. Total take for the violinist: $32.

    When the playing stopped there was silence. No one applauded, no one noticed. There was no recognition at all for violinist Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.

    Joshua Bell had played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before he’d played the same music to a sold-out Boston theater audience paying an average of $100 per seat for the privilege.

    This is a true story. It was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment on perception, taste and people's priorities—and, as I said, it won a Pulitzer.


  2. A double-dose in the so much to think about category.

    First, forgive the mothers a little bit. Sometimes people really do have to be someplace in a timely fashion. Maybe if Bell had stayed around longer, some of the mothers might have come back and stopped so their kids could listen.

    One of the things real bonuses about parenthood is the education one gets as kids discover things. One of mine became fascinated by mythocal beasts when she was in Kindergarten; the teacher had read a story that she found fascinating so, pre-computer, we were "forced" to go to the library.

    Tim, another of my kids became fascinated with things that crawl, not one of my favorite periods in her childhood. One day, she found an anthill and spend the day watching it. I wish the library was the answer to this interest. Instead, she had an ant farm in her room. We learned that ants bury their dead, at least in the non-natural environment of an ant farm. She also spent an entire day following a snake in the gutter along the curb. Up and down she went, all day. The next morning, the man across the street told my husband he found the deceased snake in his driveway. He said he got rid of it before my daughter saw it because she and snake had clearly bonded. This child loved things on the ground but if anything with wings came near her, there was instant panic.

    My son decided when he was about four that he would create a city in his bedroom. He worked for weeks on building a city out of toys, empty boxes, stuffed animals and everything else that fit into his concept. Of course, this meant that his room couldn't be cleaned; the structures took up every bit of floor space except for a path I insisted upon so that his bed could be made. We spent a lot of time looking into construction pits.

    There is no such creature as a child who is not curious. Any parent who has had a child developing a project for a science fair, learns so much because nothing takes over a home as much as a science project.

    If you don't have a child available to escort you to a museum (of any kind) tag along within ear-shot of a someone else's child. Of course, you need to have a high tolerance for questions, especially those that begin with that most dreaded word, WHY.

    Tim, the pictures are beautiful. The camouflaged caterpillar reminds me of an experience with the bug queen. My kids had a week off from school in February, not a traditional spring break in March. Most years we would go to Washington, DC. There are no crowds in DC in February so the Smithsonian, pronounced "Smiffsmonian" by the bug queen, is a fantastic place where as much time as necessary can be spent. The museum of Natural History had a bug zoo. A docent took an ugly nondescript bug and put it on the queen's sweater. It immediately changed to the color of the sweater. That bug disappeared. That lovely woman spent a lot of time proving to the queen, whose favorite attitude at that point PROVE IT which when coupled with WHY made her a bit of a strain at times.

    If an adults listen to children, they will find a universe of questions as diverse as the child.

    And lady bugs are treasured and spiders cannot, under any circumstances, be killed


  3. A dear friend of mine once said we must never lose the child within us-the curiosity, the sense of wonder. Beth, your children sound wonderfully interested. Jeff, it was an in an email that reached me and made me awfully upset that I didn't live in DC. Tim, you continue to open doors and take us through them. So-o-o nice.

  4. Lil, my kids aren't kids anymore. They are all adults and interesting people because they did stay interested in everything.

    They pull me along with them.


  5. Hi, all -- glad you like the post.

    This is a new form of posting for me -- about the third time I've done it. I find an image and put it up and start to write. It's amazing how often it leads me to something I feel deeply about, as it did here.

    And, of course, it's a chance to put up something beautiful.

    Jeffrey, I know the Joshua Bell story, and it speaks volumes. Virtually all of the people who walked by would have stopped if they'd known it usually costs a lot of money to hear him. That's a really, really sad comment (to me) because it speaks not only to a corrupted value system but even more so because it speaks to a lack of confidence in our own appreciative powers. Someone else, someone with expertise, has to like it or others haven't got chutzpah to say, "Hey, that's great." I suppose it was ever thus, but these days it feels more so.

    Beth, kids have it, and it gradually gets squeezed out of them in part, I think, because the act of looking closely says, "This is the most important thing I can be doing now, this is worth the time it takes," and kids are taught over and over that they're preparing for something rather than living, that real life begins at some date uncertain in the future when you're ready for it, that you work hard in fourth grade so you'll get into fifth grade, that when you grow up it will make perfect sense to spend day after pointless day in order to receive a check on Friday. (I know none of this is original, but I'm not trying to be original.) If (as is so often the case) the life we're working for isn't worth the work we're doing for it, who can blame us for shutting down and shouldering our way forward?

    The trouble is, of course, that you're going to die and we can't get back the time we spent that way.

    Lil, it's all Buddhism, or course, including the astronomy and cosmology, the most Buddhist of all sciences.

  6. Tim, you came very close (in your reply to the comments) to a thought that has always struck me as 'interesting': are you willing to die, to give up your life, for what you're doing? You SHOULD be. If not, why are you doing it? Because you certainly ARE "giving your life" for what you're doing!