Thursday, May 03, 2012


There are a couple of book on the shelf at home by the illustrator Istvan Banyai that I enjoy looking at now and then, ostensibly children's books, but really engaging for all ages (or maybe I'm just a child at heart), called Zoom and Re-Zoom. Not a word of text, just exquisite, colorful drawings on the recto pages, facing all-black versos.

The idea of both books is the same. Begin with a small detail, almost anything at random, and zoom out. The detail becomes part of a larger picture, which then becomes part of a still broader view, and so on. A scene of riders on an Indian elephant, for example, when we zoom out, is seen to be painted on the side of a Southeast Asian trunk on a small water craft, which turns out to be a toy boat on a French pond, and so on. We end up on the page of a boy's book in a New York subway train.

That is to say, nothing is as it first seems as we move trough space and time. In a sense, all space and time exists simultaneously; what we experience is a matter of perspective. Take up a posture in the middle of the book -- as a passenger on that Indian elephant, for instance -- and you can travel either way, down to smaller and smaller scales, or outward to ever more comprehensive vistas. (You can visit a few pages of either book on Amazon).

Banyai's books, it seems to me, are philosophically refreshing in that they remind us that the conceptual worlds we live in might look very different to someone in a different time, place or culture; that is to say, they are bracing cautions against dogmatism of any sort. It seldom occurs to passionately-committed American Christians, for example, that they would almost certainly be equally passionately-committed Muslims had they been born in Qom, Iran, say. Or vice versa.

And while we are at it, let's not omit science.

I am thinking of the Powers of Ten book by Philip and Phylis Morrison, based on a film by Charles and Ray Eames, which in turn was based on an earlier book by Kees Boeke. As we have instrumentally expanded our perceptions to larger and smaller scales, we have come to understand that we don't live on the back of that elephant after all -- in a human-centered world created on a human scale of space and time. Our science has had to adjust accordingly to be ever more comprehensive.

And does anyone but me wonder why it is that the Powers of Ten book extends about the same number of orders of magnitude into the very small and very large, with us somewhere near the middle. Is that, too, a matter of limited perspective? With tongue only partly in cheek, I wonder if our universe of galaxies might be just a Banyai glimpse into a vastly larger multiverse, and quarks might be to us what galaxies are to some more comprehensive reality.

Remember when we were children we used to wonder if our solar system was a mere atom in some greater creature's body (I seem to remember a comic book on that theme). We were being whimsical, of course, but if the galaxies and the quarks have taught us anything it is the same message as Banyai's books: The world will always turn out to be more expansive and various that we imagined.