New default image of scientist

“Humans are on a scale between subatomic particles and the observable universe.” The Milky Way Galaxy.

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It is sometimes claimed that, measured by orders of magnitude, humans are intermediate between subatomic particles and the observable universe. (Or, to put it another way, that we fall halfway between nothing and everything.) Whether or not this claim is strictly true, it is arresting and resonant in every way. Each one of our lives can feel like an entire universe – vastly important and infinite in scope – and yet from another perspective, each one is utterly insignificant and ephemeral. It is an impossible paradox, a state of both surplus and surplus value, and it brings with it some creative and ethical opportunities. I am interested in how these opportunities can be explored in fiction, how scale can demystify human life, and indeed all life, reminding us of the infinite nature of its vastness. And reminds us of the improbability and wonder of its existence.

In each of my novels, and especially on the rise, I placed non-intuitive spatial and temporal contexts next to the more mundane concerns of my characters. Telescopes and microscopes come up again and again, as do deep time, evolution and the life cycles of parasites and viruses. At the same time, characters are eating, walking between rooms, restlessly going through circular thoughts, worrying about their family, or being bored. The lens zooms in and out from “domestic” to “alien” scenes. I don’t do this to mock or diminish our characters, but rather to evoke the paradoxical quality in which we are both infinite and infinite, equally close to something very large and very small. .

I’ve always been drawn to fiction that attempts this. When scenes from very different perspectives collide, the effect can be startling, exciting, unforgettable. My favorite example is in Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel. to the lighthouse, Which I first read as a teenager. In the 134 pages of his opening section, “The Window,” Woolf gives us through the character of Mrs. Ramsay a consciousness that seems impossible to define or delimit. In the next section, “Time Passes,” the perspective undergoes a fundamental shift. The house is empty, the people are gone, Mrs. Ramsay, we are informed in two small lines enclosed between brackets, as if an afterthought is finished.

I will never forget the shock and thrill of reading it for the first time. I didn’t realize fiction could do that. Wolfe’s bravery and ambition died. It showed, tragically, the power and fragility of every consciousness. It’s a truth that can’t be repeated enough: life feels infinite, and it’s over in a second. Much of Woolf’s fiction is interested in this dichotomy, and it is no coincidence that, as well as experiencing both world wars, she lived through radical advances in the power of the telescope that revealed all about the size of the universe. Changed the understanding. And it should come as no surprise – although it apparently still does to many – that Wolff was not only an avid reader of astronomy books and Science fictionbut he found himself engaged in a lifelong writing project that compares favorably with the most ambitious works of SF.

The main character of In Ascension, Leigh Hasenbosch, is a microbiologist who travels in deep space. Not only is she surprised to see the entire Earth, but she is also disappointed to see the planet disappearing. Anthropocentrism—the unmistakably default approach in English-language fiction—has never looked so funny. Approaching the Oort Cloud, he becomes aware of other orders of life around him, from algal food stocks to colonies of bacteria traveling between him and the other crew. Beyond the composite walls of the ship, there is nothing.

Since childhood, after an epiphany near drowning, Lee has followed the origins of life, which symbiogenesis And was impressed by its impossibility. It is all but impossible that life exists, and yet here it is. At the same time, she questions her childhood and its impact on the person she has become. His life and work revolve around this elusive pursuit of originality. So which scale is “correct”? Which story is he really invested in – the universal, or the personal? The answer, of course, is both – neither answer can be sufficient.

Martin McInnes In AscensionPublished by Atlantic Books, New Scientist is the latest selection for book clubs. Sign up and read with us Here