Measuring Scale: A World in a Grain of Sand

The three-pound laptop you carry one-handed from kitchen to den, sipping a cup of coffee with the other: not 30 years ago a machine of the same power would have required a building to house and run it. On its screen, pull up photographs capturing a nebula light years across or the beauty of a cell's construction; order a novel that uses the spread of cancer within an individual character to examine global economic and environmental policies; peruse an on-line issue of Scientific American, whose cover announces that “Big Physics Gets Small.”

Forget your laptop. Using far more specialized instruments, scientists look 13,000,000,000 years into the past and see the universe's roiling birth, record the decay of a cesium atom to measure time to the billionth of a second, trace the progress of particles so tiny we can know they're there only by inference, identify precisely the flawed gene that brings an elephant, entire, to its knees.

Forget the machine altogether. Consider how a poem may deploy a single, precise image to capture the sweep of human history, or geologic; admire how Blake collapses, with such dizzying speed, the greatness of a World into the smallest thing he can perceive with his naked eye, and in the same gesture, by mere inference, makes of that world billions, a whole beach's-worth of worlds he can scoop into his palm and run through his fingers.

Imagine a global economy, billions of dollars moving in the form of electrons every minute. Imagine that in this world, a man who lends third-world businesswomen as little as $12 each effects change so significant he wins the Nobel Prize--not for economics, but for peace.

Imagine Wallace Stegner driving his aunt, fresh from the Midwest, into southern Utah. As they approach the Book Cliffs, sheer rock faces soaring a thousand feet from the desert floor, he waits for her to notice them. When finally, puzzled, he points them out, she compares them to the 30-foot bluffs edging the river back home. She can't adjust herself to the enormous sizes and distances of a new, unfamiliar landscape. She can't even see what she's looking at.

Imagine a universe made up, fundamentally, of tiny strings, vibrating in more than three dimensions; imagine these strings extending into branes, enormous higher-dimensional expanses. Recall a moment when you moved unexpectedly out of a small alcove into a great sweep of space--how that opening took your breath away.

Scale: Artists and physicists and geologists, poets and architects, economists and musicians, biologists and activists and philosophers dream in it, considering balance, interval, proportion; weighing quantity and quality, inches to miles, a note or volume against another. Where are you standing, now, as you hurtle on this negligible rock of ours through space? What can you see from where you stand? Most of the time, we manage scale, and shifts in scale, automatically, without thinking. But when we do attend to matters of scale, or alter our position in relation to the world we observe, our visions of reality may shift, and what we accept as ordinary may become suddenly, vertiginously strange and new. Join physicist Lisa Randall, poet and Renaissance scholar Linda Gregerson, and philosopher of architecture and design Sanford Kwinter, as we examine how scale determines what we see and know--and therefore also the power of our dreaming, and of our dreams to enter the world.

Lisa Randall

Lisa Randall is professor of theoretical physics and studies particle physics and cosmology Her research concerns elementary particles and fundamental forces and has involved the development and study of a wide variety of models, the most recent involving extra dimensions of space. She has made advances in understanding and testing the Standard Model of particle physics, supersymmetry, models of extra dimensions, resolutions to the hierarchy problem concerning the weakness of gravity and experimental tests of these ideas, cosmology of extra dimensions, baryogenesis, cosmological inflation, and dark matter. Professor Randall earned her PhD from Harvard University and held professorships at MIT and Princeton University before returning to Harvard in 2001. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and is a past winner of an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, a DOE Outstanding Junior Investigator Award, and the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. In 2003, she received the Premio Caterina Tomassoni e Felice Pietro Chisesi Award, from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. In autumn, 2004, she was the most cited theoretical physicist of the previous five years. In 2006, she received the Klopsted Award from the American Society of Physics Teachers (AAPT). In 2007, she received the Julius Lilienfeld Prize from the American Physical Society for her work on elementary particle physics and cosmology and for communicating this work to the public. Professor Randall’s book Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions was included in the New York Times' 100 notable books of 2005.

In 2008, Prof. Randall was among Esquire Magazine's "75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century". Randall was included in Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" of 2007 and was one of 40 people featured in The Rolling Stone 40th Anniversary issue that year. Prof. Randall was featured in Newsweek's "Who's Next in 2006" as "one of the most promising theoretical physicists of her generation" and in Seed Magazine's "2005 Year in Science Icons".

Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson's newest collection (and finalist for the National Book Award), Magnetic North, includes poems she characterizes as "odes to my great heroes, the experimental scientists" from 1600 to the present, dealing with subjects ranging from magnetism to cellular and molecular biology. Her previous collections, Waterborne, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, and Fire in the Conservatory, have garnered praise and numerous awards, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, an Ingram-Merrill Award, two Pushcart Prizes, a Kingsley Tufts Award, and a recent Guggenheim Fellowship. She is also renowned as a scholar and critic of both Renaissance and contemporary literature. She teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, where she has been honored for her teaching and writing with the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award.

Sanford Kwinter

Sanford Kwinter is a New York-based writer, designer and philosopher whose scholarship encompasses contemporary technological, cultural, and intellectual issues in design, architecture, and urbanism. His recent publications include Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture, which offers a critical guide to the modern history of time and examines the interplay between the physical sciences, and the arts; Mutations, which was published in conjunction with an exhibition in Bordeaux; and Rem Koolhaas: Conversations With Students; as well as articles and essays in such journals as Seed Magazine. He is co-founder and editor for Zone and Zone Books at the MIT Press and the founder of the content and communications design firm Studio !KASAM. He teaches teaches for the School of Architecture at Rice University.

Panel Discussions

The lens: The infinite and the infinitessimal

The moral dimensions of scale in a paranoid age