The Art-Science of Taking Perspective
A journey from the farthest cosmic horizons of reality to the depths of our poetic truth.
By Maria Popova
I have been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of perspective. We speak of taking another’s perspective — an admirable moral aspiration but, in a strict sense, a physical impossibility. Even the most well-intentioned and empathetic among us are creatures invariably bound by our frames of reference, with our vantage point confined to our own corner of reality. And yet we aim, as we must, to transcend our perspectival blindnesses and see the world from different points of view — that, it seems to me, is one of the fundamental requirements of human decency and one of the great paradoxes of morality.
In such considerations, we use the word perspective in its figurative sense, but that sense — far more so than for most words — is deeply entwined with the word’s literal meaning and its history. Even the word figurative is part of the history of perspective.
This passage from Figuring traces the interleaving of art and science in the development of perspective, responsible for one of our greatest leaps in understanding the nature of reality:
Euclid’s Elements remains one of the most influential scientific texts of all time, on a par with Newton’s Principia. For centuries after Euclid’s death, his geometry remained our only model of understanding space. This breakthrough in science shaped art through the development of perspective — a technique originally called geometric figuring, which invited architecture and the figurative arts into the three-dimensional world for the first time, then through them gave back to science. Galileo’s Moon drawings were so revolutionary in large part because, trained in perspective, he depicted the topography of its mountains and craters, emanating the radical suggestion that our satellite is not a perfectly smooth orb of ethereal matter but as solid and rugged as the Earth — not a heavenly body but a material one. Mere months earlier, the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot had become the first person known to make a drawing of the Moon seen through a telescope. Untrained in perspective and ignorant of the Euclid-informed projective geometries that had made their way to Florence but not yet to England, he depicted the Moon as a dappled disc resembling an engraved medal. The genius that led Galileo to see what Harriot could not was indelibly genius loci, as much a function of his mind as of his time and place.
This question of the relationship between perspective in the scientific sense and perspective in the moral sense was recently reignited when I watched the iconic 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames — a perspectival masterpiece that did for our understanding of scale and orders of magnitude what Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Victorian novella Flatland did for our understanding of dimensions. I had seen Powers of Ten numerous times before, but this time — perhaps because I watched it projected onto a ceiling, lying flat on my back, with an astrophysicist beside me — its genius struck a deeper chord. It belongs to that rare species of science communication that transcends the scientific and reaches into the poetic, effecting not mere explanation, not even just elucidation, but enchantment.
The film was made months after the launch of the Voyager mission, in an era infused with Carl Sagan’s poetic sensibility and ablaze with the thrill of cosmic curiosity — a time when humanity’s prosthetic eye first left our corner of the Solar System and set out for its farthest reaches, in order to view our cosmic neighborhood from a perspective other than the one allotted us by gravity. To watch Powers of Ten — and to take the telescopic perspective in any way — is to humble ourselves, to dwarf our hyperlocal human dramas against the backdrop of a far vaster reality. If only we could move through the world with the continual awareness that we are each but tiny particles of universal matter, yet we each contain entire cosmoses of physical and psychic reality — we do, as much as everyone we see as other does.
Powers of Ten ends its perspectival extension into the largest scale at 100 million lightyears from Earth, or 1024 meters — the limit of our vision in 1977. In the decades since, humanity’s prosthetic eye — our Earth-tethered instruments, our space telescopes, our data modeling — has extended beyond this horizon, further calibrating our parochial cosmic perspective. In 2009, the American Museum of Natural History teamed up with the Rubin Museum to produce a visualization of the scale of the universe, to the extent that it was then known. While it lacks the poetic enchantment of the Eames classic and ventures only into the large scales, omitting the subatomic, it offers an astounding journey to our cosmic horizon in space and time, as far as 13.7 billion years of light travel away from Earth, to regions of spacetime illuminated by the light of the baby universe — the afterglow of the Big Bang:
A visualization produced five years later, in 2014, explores more recent scientific discoveries about the largest known structures in the universe, superclusters — regions of spacetime densely packed with galaxies — and how our own home supercluster, Laniakea, fits into the biggest picture of reality we have yet painted:
But I side with Susan Sontag in the conviction that “information will never replace illumination” and with Rachel Carson in her lifelong ethos that the scientific and the poetic must converge to illuminate nature in a way that not only informs us but moves us to transcend the limitations of our vantage point. To me, far superior than any data visualization in broadening our perspective — perspective in the humanistic sense as well as the cosmic sense — is Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” written for and performed at the second annual Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works:
by Marie Howe
(after Stephen Hawking)
Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?
so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —
nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone
pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.
For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you. Remember?
There was no Nature. No
them. No tests
to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf or if
the coral reef feels pain. Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;
would that we could wake up to what we were
— when we were ocean and before that
to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not
at all — nothing
before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.
Can molecules recall it?
what once was? before anything happened?
No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with
is is is is is
All everything home
For more perspectival masterpieces from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our belonging to nature, and astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s poetic reflection on what we see when we look past the veils of our perception.
Published January 2, 2019