25 May 2011

Killing Whales & Freezing to Death

Gerry threw the orange into the water and slapped his hand against the gunwale in frustration.
“They can’t have thought that! That’s what we think now. They didn’t have the bloody scientific apparatus to magnify something that much.”
The Berg shifted slightly, voice amused: “So if you went and asked some stupid bogan what the surface of an orange would look like if you were one hundredth of a millimeter tall, what would they say? They don’t have the scientific apparatus either.”
“As a culture they do. They may not have ever used a scanning electron microscope, but they’ve seen enough trippy animation at the start of movies to know that things aren’t just… I don’t know, smooth.”
“Who says the ancient Greeks, or any primitive culture, saw the very small as smooth?”
“Well they can’t have seen it as bloody molecular, or atomic!”
“The Greeks saw it as atomic.”
“That was just a theory, an extension of Plato’s perfect forms. If they cut the skin of an orange smaller and smaller they wouldn’t get structure, cells walls, amino acids – they’d get tiny orange spheres. Ancient Greek atoms.”
“But that’s what we get now. It’s just a difference in how we get there.”
“Tiny orange spheres?”
“When you use your imagination to zoom in on this orange, down through cells walls and such, what do your atoms look like?"
“OK, coloured spheres.”
“Not electron clouds surrounding subatomic particles that are best described as probability densities?”
“OK! OK!” Gerry turned away and looked out across the grey ocean. There was a slight chop and the wind had turned even colder. The Berg loomed behind him, waves slapping against its base with a fractured, hollow sound.
“All I’m bloody saying,” he said, turning back to the wall of ice, “is that it would be interesting to know how ancient cultures imagined the very small, given that, although some of them may have possessed the philosophical idea of the atom, the vast majority did not. None of them had a microscope, and so would have been totally unaware of the minute complexity of everyday objects.”
The Berg rumbled in appreciation. “Well put. Yes, that’s an interesting thought. Personally I have no idea how they imagined such things. Nobody really got down here much except in the last one hundred years or so and they were all too busy killing whales and freezing to death to stop and chat.”

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