Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Monday, January 12, 2009

Large-Scale Structure of the Universe: Up Close

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Artist Chuck Close is revolutionary for his style which, in many paintings, involves huge canvasses that appear very pixelated up close.  Often the viewer cannot determine the subject of the painting unless standing far back from the image.  His 1997 Self Portrait  is 8.5' tall. Put your nose near the piece and you'll see that it is comprised of thousands of minature paintings set in a grid.  Each individual painting is abstract with no discernable meaning. Step back a few feet and the smaller images resolve into some structure.

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Step back further and additional structure and order is revealed.  The same process is operable with photomosaics with smaller pixels resolving themselves into coherent images at larger scales.  A pixel can be anything: a digital dot (as with a TV screen or computer monitor), an smaller paintings within a larger painting as with Chuck Close, or a photograph like Robert Silvers patented photomosaic process, or jelly beans, or Rubix Cubes.   Put the pixels together, standback and they form an image.  I have a huge photomosaic puzzle of Charlie Brown lounging with Snoopy, and the 1000 puzzle pieces are made up of tiny Peanuts comic strip "pixels".

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The same principle is at work in the universe.  And this intrigues me to no end.  Look at cosmic microwave background studies and see large-scale structures emerge.  The stuff of the universe is not distributed in a homogenous spread.  There are webs, strands and filaments.  But the pixels forming these images are galaxies!  When I want to feel small I turn to the geologic time scale and consider the 4.5 billion years of this planet.  When I want to feel vanishingly small I consider large-scale structure of the universe.   Run this BASIC computer program:

Line 10: PRINT "I am a pixel..."
Line 20: PRINT "On a pixel..."
Line 30: Goto Line 20

Recall the opening scene of the movie Contact.  The movie started with  a tight zoom of a house, then zoomed out to show the city, then zoomed out to get a planet view, then solar system view, then galaxy view*.  If the zoom continued out infinitely to the "God-scale view", what image would appear in the large-scale structure of the universe?  Wouldn't it be a hoot if it was a massive Charlie Brown picture? I think God has that kind of sense of humor.**

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Self-Protrait, Chuck Close 1997

The Fine Print
*It was brilliant that the soundtrack of  progressively got older the further the zoom receded from earth.  Loved it.

**Quickly grounding myself and sitting on my insulated stool in case of lightening strike.


  1. As much as I generally don't like these kinds of pictures (or the ones made of dots where one is supposed to discern the hidden picture), there is like much in what you saw with comparing it to reality and our place in it.

    I was just as fond, by the way, of the reverse zoom shot of the universe hidden in a gem on the cat's collar from Men in Black.

  2. I'd completely forgot about the Men in Black reverse zoom. Which just popped a kernel of an idea for the next post. Thanks!

    I dub thee "Lady Blog Fodder." Arise!

    (In addition of coining phrases, I've just decided that on my blog I'm able to confer titles.)

  3. That's OK, I do it to myself all the time. That's why I steal my own comments on Thursday.

    Interestingly enough, my husband has the nickname, "The Duke". Long story. I had to explain to some of his fawning minions that the correct way to address him is "Your Grace". It helps that they've never seen him walk.

    I don't have fawning minions. I prefer to confer among peers. It's why I like you.

    Do I have to get up?

  4. I'll work on getting some seats or stools around here. Sitting is just fine.

    By the way, "Fawning Minions" would be a great band name. Or maybe just "Minions".


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