A regular reader of this blog commented last week on the enjoyment she gained during the pandemic from their daily walk around a local lake which reminded me about a recent experience on one of our regular weekend hikes around Moel Famau, which have been real rather than virtual for some months now [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau‘ on April 8th, 2020]. It was an unseasonally warm day and there was a strong scent from the daffodils in the broad verge next to the farm track that we were walking down. The impact of the scent on my sense of well-being was almost like a form of synaesthesia [see ‘Engineering synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016]. I am on vacation this week, hoping to slow down [see ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd 2015], climb some hills and feed my consciousness some different sensory experiences [see ‘Feed your consciousness with sensory experiences‘ on May 22nd 2019].
The day after England was released from its second national lockdown we went to a concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It was a socially-distanced event attended by about 400 people in a hall with a capacity of 1700. Even members of orchestra sat two metres apart and wore face coverings until they had taken their seats. Nevertheless, it was an uplifting occasion with the conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko welcoming us back at the start of the concert. We listened to three pieces Variaciones concertantes by Ginastera; Il Tramonto by Respighi; and Carmen Suite for percussion and strings by Bizet and arranged by Shchedrin. I really enjoyed the first piece by Ginastera which I had not heard before; however, while listening to Jennifer Johnston singing Il Tramonto, I realised that I had no recall of the previous piece of music. As I sit writing, I cannot reproduce any of the sounds from the concert in my head, except for a few fuzzy sequences of Carmen that I had heard many times before, whereas I can ‘see’ the layout of the orchestra with Jennifer Johnston and Vasily Petrenko stood in front of them. My inability to recall sounds might explain why I struggle to speak any foreign languages or to remember the pronouncation of unfamilar words in English. Despite the fact that I cannot recall the music, the feelings of enjoyment remain as a memory and made me smile as I wrote this post.
Politicians and the media are fond of dazzling us with big numbers: $62m, £35bn, $1.1 tn. All of these are unimaginable sums of money – uncountable and, for most us, unspendable. They are respectively: the launch cost for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the anticipated ‘divorce cost’ to the UK for leaving the EU and the predicted US government annual deficit for next year based on the additional spending approved in the budget bill early this month. For most of us, winning $62m in a lottery would be a life-changing event that we might dream about but there’s only about a 1 in 14 million chance of it happening – oops, there’s another unimaginable number.
We seem quite happy handling numbers over a limited interval, from perhaps 1 in 100 [1% or 0.01] to maybe 100,000 but beyond this range our perspective ceases to be linear and probably becomes logarithmic (as in the graphic), or something similar. In other words, we don’t perceive £35bn as being about 500 times larger than $62m, or $1.1tn being about 18 million times larger. Instead, we concertina our mental picture into something more manageable, such as the image shown in the graphic. Does this have the side-effect of lessening the impact of large numbers so that we are less alarmed by costs of £35bn or deficits of $1.1tn? Maybe we would take more notice of a cost of £500 per person in the UK or a deficit of $3600 per person per year in the USA?
At the other end of the scale, something similar happens. Nanotechnology is a popular buzz word at the moment but few people can conceive of something 2.5 nanometres in diameter – that’s the diameter of a strand of DNA. It doesn’t help much to tell you that a human hair is 40,000 times thicker!
Maybe, all of this only applies to those of us who ‘see’ numbers in pictorial patterns, and to the rest of you it is nonsensical. See my post on Engineering Synaesthesia on September 21st, 2016.
Financial Times, Weekend 10 February/11 February 2018.
I have a new print in my office. It’s called ‘Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait’ and is by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) [see: http://www.painters-table.com/link/contemporary-art-daily/maria-lassnig]. I am disappointed to admit that I had never heard of her until I went to a special exhibition at the Tate Liverpool a few weeks ago, which featured her work and that of Francis Bacon. I was expecting the works by Bacon to be the main attraction but instead I thought Lassnig ‘stole the show’. Nearly all of her paintings in the exhibition were self-portraits in which she attempts to represent on canvas her ‘body sensation’ or ‘body awareness’. This seems to echo the synaesthesia pursued by Georgia O’Keeffe when she represented her feelings from various senses in her paintings [see my post entitled ‘Engineering Synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016]. Two of Lassnig’s paintings resonanted with me: one, which was on the front of the programme, called Lady with Brain was painted in 1991 and shows the head of a lady with a proportion of her brain outside of her skull – not in a damaged way but as if it had grown there. This reminded me of the ideas on our increasing use of out-of-skull memory and processing power in our mobile devices that I wrote about under the heading ‘Thinking out of Skull’ [see my post of that title on March 18th, 2015]. The second is the print in my office, painted in 1995, that shows the artist wearing a virtual reality headset that looks almost identical to those we use in our Virtual Engineering Centre. I was amazed by Lassnig’s vision.