Friday, January 11, 2013

Trapped in a Reference Frame

"It concerned some boy whose farm or cottage stood on such a slope, and who went on his travels to find something, such as the effigy and grave of some giant; and when he was far enough from home he looked back and saw that his own farm and kitchen garden, shining flat on the hillside like the colours and quarterings of a shield, were but parts of some such gigantic figure on which he had always lived, but which was too large and too close to be seen." -G.K. Chesterton

Humans have ever aspired to be birds. From the time of Icarus all the way to today's inane wingsuit jumpers, mankind has wanted to soar over mountains and treetops, preferably in slow motion and to epic music, because slow motion and epic music make things all the more awesome. But why? Why did DaVinci and the Wright brothers and all those comic book authors dream of human flight? Perhaps it was because they were all sick and tired of living in two dimensions, of only being able to venture into the third by falling off a cliff or being shot out of a cannon. Perhaps mankind was sick of its reference frame; weary of seeing ground beneath its feet and all things from the same lousy perspective. Mankind strove to reach outer space not just to explore the stars, but so that it could look back at planet earth; so that it could defy its reference frame and see the globe from a distance. Distance gives perspective. This is why model train layouts, like architectural models and those miniature scale sailboats are so enduringly appealing. They allow the viewer to escape his reference frame and view the trains and buildings and boats from a greater "distance." This is likely why Legos are so appealing to me. They have the potential to recreate life in a different reference frame, one where the ground needn't necessarily be beneath our feet. Indeed, extreme distance gives perspective, and extreme closeness gives wonder. I've often wondered what it might be like to swim around inside of a plant cell, or be like Calvin, imagining himself as a bug in Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. One can escape the bars of our reference frame by gaining distance or by imagining, like Chesterton's traveller, that we have always been living on top of an enormous giant. Our appreciation for the commonplace will inevitably grow as we see the commonplace from a different perspective. 

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