Monday, July 18, 2011

Law 7: Vision - To See Detail

Making Monday

I first began to wrap my head around the concept of orders of magnitude after watching Eva Szasz's Cosmic Zoom (National Film Board of Canada, 1968) many years ago. (An order of magnitude, by the way, is simply multiplying by ten: ten is an order of magnitude greater than one.)

The film starts with a boy in a row boat, zooms out to the scale of galactic clusters, back down to the boy and in to the scale of atoms, and then returns to the scale at which we exist. It's a great way to blow your mind without smoking or ingesting anything.

I draw two morals from the cosmic zoom:
  1. There's always a bigger picture in which the current big picture is just detail.
  2. It's the details that make the big picture interesting.
I once came across the claim that where most people are comfortable dealing with three or for orders of magnitude (from ones to thousands or ten thousands), those who build computer systems, both hardware and software, must routinely work across two or three times more orders of magnitude (millions or billions). In fact, with current processors that execute instructions in billionths of a second to systems that might run continuously for a billion seconds (about 32 years) you have eighteen orders of magnitude.

"But what does this have to do with me?" you might ask. "I'm a writer. I don't do numbers."

Just as the vision of the makers enables them to see far, it also enables them to see the details. In other words, in order to be a maker you must develop your own kind of cosmic zoom.

In a novel of, let's say, one hundred thousand words, you've nominally got five orders of magnitude between the book as a whole and any individual word. Each word is the detail that makes the sentence in which it occurs interesting. Each sentence builds it's paragraph. And so on through scenes, chapters, acts, and the book. (And the book, of course, may be part of something larger like a series.) But you've also got other dimensions--characters, plot, theme, setting, etc.--that span additional orders of magnitude.

The power of the vision of the makers is in seeing how the details can take us beyond the horizon to a new whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

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