Magnitude

Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

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