06.21.2011
Moving Right Along: 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.


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