Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The Infinitely Large, Infinitely Small, and Infinitely Complex
This week, we’re going to talk about nothing less than the place that the human brain occupies in the known universe. Let’s begin by recalling that, as stated often elsewhere on The Brain from Top to Bottom, the brain that each of us possesses is one of the most complex objects in that universe, which is already saying a lot.
The complexity of the human brain is one of the reasons that this website is organized the way it is. First of all, it offers explanations at three levels of difficulty—Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced—though even the Advanced level scarcely begins to convey the actual complexity of nervous systems and of living organisms in general. Second, this site describes the brain in terms of the five levels of organization of living organisms, from the molecular to the social, with properties that emerge from the multiple interactions among these levels.
This infinite complexity of living organisms is part and parcel of, and made possible by, the infinite vastness of the universe and the infinite smallness of the atom. Thus astrophysics and quantum physics in a sense represent the upper and lower bounds of works in various media, including this one, that attempt to depict the mechanisms that result in human consciousness.
In this spirit, in this week’s blog post, we want to turn you on to a few works that will take you on a trip from the cosmic level to the atomic level and draw the connections between these two orders of magnitude within which human life exists and that, indeed, make human life possible. For as science tells us, the atoms that constitute all of the DNA and all of the proteins in the human body are the result of the explosion of distant stars, long, long ago. Or, as Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves has put it, “In effect, we are all made of stardust.”
Below are links to five works that all offer variations on the same theme: they start at the human scale, zoom out to the edge of the universe, then zoom back in to the level of subatomic particles. The links are listed in chronological order, because the works in question span more than half a century.
The first link is to a website that reproduces the book Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps, published in 1957 by Dutch educator Kees Boeke. The next link is to Cosmic Zoom, an animated film by Eva Szasz, produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1968. Next comes the classic film Powers of Ten, by Charles and Ray Eames, officially released in 1977 but based on a “rough sketch” that first came out in 1968. The next link is to the 1997 film Cosmic Voyage, which presents the same concept in IMAX format. And lastly, there is the splendid interactive animation The Scale of the Universe 2, produced in 2012 by 14-year-old Cary Huang with the help of his twin brother Michael.
Only 14 years old, with his brain not yet even fully myelinated, yet capable of understanding all that complexity—impressive complexity indeed!