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Powells.com
Saturday, December 21st, 2002


 

Heaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye

by

A review by C. P. Farley

Albert Einstein said that "the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." He would have loved this book. A testament to the remarkable twentieth-century advances that have exponentially extended human sight (microscopes and telescopes), Heaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye demonstrates that the age-old pursuit of beauty and the modern mania for technology may not be as far apart as is generally thought.

Tucked in David Malin's excellent short introduction is the following observation: "[K]nowledge of the smallest — and largest — entities that we can contemplate helps us to define where we fit in the scheme of things. Rather surprisingly, we find that humans are about halfway between the very smallest and the largest things we know." In other words, in size, we are — fascinating fact — around half way between the largest galaxy glimpsed by the Hubble Space Telescope and the smallest sub-atomic particle caught spiraling through a bubble chamber.

Heaven and Earth provides a photographic tour through this incredible range of objects. Its 368 full-page, full-color photographs are arranged in order of magnification, from a single gold atom magnified 260 million times to the blue irregular clouds near the edge of the visible universe, about 10 billion light years away. A concise note of explanation accompanies each photo and the entire lot is intelligently organized into five helpful groups.

Heaven and Earth is cleverly conceived and elegantly executed, but what best recommends it, what makes it a bargain at 230 million times the price, are the photographs themselves. Here is Nature in all her vast variety, ravishing color, and myriad motifs. Included in this magnificent montage are a photograph of the skeleton of a tiny planktonic organism (magnified 16,000 times) that looks like a blue-lit bouquet of fluted flowers; crystals of tartaric acid viewed though a stereomicroscope in cross-polarized light (magnified 250 times) that look like orgiastic sprays of pastel paint; and an image of a carotid artery obtained with a helical scanner that resembles the eye of a saffron and milk tornado. There's a stunning photograph of the Ganges River Delta viewed from space that looks like a Matisse doodle in blue, and a cross-polarized light micrograph of the Allende meteorite (magnified 200 times) that bears an eerie resemblance to Chagall's ecstatic windows. And who knew that a human heart valve could look so much like a wispy, distant galaxy; or that a wispy, distant galaxy could look so much like the ethereal doppelganger of a Spanish Moon Moth; or that the wing of a Spanish Moon Moth, if properly magnified, could look so much like the feathered face of a malevolent medicine man.

This magnificent, wonder-inspiring book reveals what a mysterious and extremely beautiful universe we live in. It also demonstrates that, if viewed from the proper distance, such apparent opposites as art and science have far more in common than is visible with the naked eye.


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