A world of wonders in one closet shut
– Inscription on the Tradescant family tombstone, London
There are two things which have deeply terrified me in recent science news. The first, as you may have heard, is that a bumper crop of some 32 “new” planets was discovered by a team of European researchers armed with a spectrograph called HARPS, or High Accuracy Radial velocity Planetary Searcher. The second is that Israeli scientists have made a robot small enough to crawl through human veins.
Why do these things strike horror in my usually demure heart? Because I see the approaching future as an exercise in coming to terms with both the macrocosm and the microcosm. We have spent most of our time as a technological race making, and interfacing with, approximately people-sized objects: other people, tools, cars, industrial machines, personal computers. This world of people-sized functionality and people-sized ideas has always been a delusion of our people-centric worldview and a necessary effect of our people-sized needs. However, as we approach a future with sharper spikes in technological change, and as our science makes increasingly audacious discoveries about this cavernous universe of ours, we’ll see our working intellectual environment revert to its more natural scale. That is, the scale of physics and of the Universe, of the forces which drive electrons in their dervish spin and the forces which dictate the universe’s acceleration, of the machinations of molecules and the movements of galaxies — of the incomprehensibly small (5 million human genomes could happily dance on the head of a pin, after all) to the incomprehensibly huge, which together represent the overwhelming bulk of the physical reality we’re daily immersed in.
On one side of the spectrum, the knobbed, buttoned, handled, and human-scale tools we’re accustomed to will, as nanotechnology evolves, dwindle out of reach into a smallness that borders on abstraction. And, on the other side, we’ll see our closely-held Laws of Nature, once designed to explain pedestrian aspects of everyday physical existence (things falling down), bloom into complex, distinctly non-personal systems of knowledge which will begin to encompass an entire universe of things we are incapable relating to — dark matter, energy, gravity waves, unifying “Theories of Everything.” We’re going to experience a dramatic shock of perspective, like someone casually peering into a hole only to realize, with an awful wrenching of the gut and a quick jump backwards, that it’s thousands of feet deep.
Maybe it’s my sturdy sci-fi diet, but this is the way I’ve come to understand the future. Undoubtedly, this is why infinitesimal vein-crawling robots and distant new life-bearing planets terrify me with equal existential vigor. Why is it that the very large and the very small both strike such visceral feeling in the feeble human Id? Is it because we’re anthropocentric, tending to understand things in convenient multiples of ourselves: distance in feet, or time in terms of lifespans and generations (even the humble second handily spans the length of a heartbeat)? When I try to visualize a great height, I often think of how many of me standing on each others’ shoulders it might encompass; we often simplify distances by imagining how many people holding hands (or how many hot dogs lain end to end) it would take to broach them.
Perhaps. As Natalie Angier more eloquently puts it in her excellent science-for-curious-adults primer The Canon, “we have evolved to view life on a human scale, to concern ourselves almost exclusively with the rhythm of hours, days, seasons, years, and with objects we can readily see, touch, and count on, because those are what we have to work with, those are the ambient utensils with which we must build our lives.”
At the same time, tiny things fascinate us, from grains of rice daubed with tiny penmanship to the whirling stew of molecules that make the world. And extremely large things awe and humble us, often in life-changing ways. Swimming in the ocean and feeling its tenebrous depths below, gazing at the vast night sky, momentarily getting a sense of the thingness of a thing we hold: it’s these momentary glimpses of realization into the small and huge that help us to delineate the teetering edges of our personal reality, our oscillating context, which is in that ballpark between a microbe and a solar system. Ultimately, though, unless we’re microbiologists or cosmologists, we’re not yet accustomed to dealing with the macro and micro in either an intimate, nor a long-term way.
And this time, as the nanorobots and new planets march towards our quotidian life, pregnant with possibility, well…as the movie posters warn us, it’s personal. Those Israeli nanobots, made of silicone and metal, will be biocompatible, meaning they could live inside our bodies indefinitely — essentially becoming part of us. Sayeth the scientist at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, “we hope the robot will be able to travel through a blood vessel, the digestive tract or the lungs, delivering targeted medicines to specific locations, clearing blockages, performing biopsies, or placed inside a shunt to drain body fluids from clogged areas.”
Bodily fluids — about as personal as it gets. To these tiny medical stewards, we will be a huge environment, a self-contained world with its own set of physical parameters, forces, and mysteries; for its host, the nano-robot is a speck of perspective in the blood, ready at any moment to evoke the boundless, microscopic world we normally utterly ignore. And at the other side of this scale, a brood of new, Jupiter-sized planets serves to remind us of an equally absurd, mind-blowing truth — that our world, our bodies, and even the nano-robots living inside them are all equally small in the larger scale of the universe.