The Human Scale

Humans are locked into a certain scale in both space and time.

This great interactive animation from the University of Utah lets you grab a slider and zoom from a coffee bean down to a carbon atom. This is clearly inspired by the classic “powers of ten” film by Charles and Ray Eames which also uses a carbon atom towards the small end of the scale.

Here’s the 1977 film Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe:

On the other end of the scale, here’s a video showing our moon through the whole Universe:

These two videos focus on space, the other axis worth considering is time. Just like space there are scales of time which are completely outside of our unaided perception. We can no more experience events which are microseconds apart than we can directly see microbes.

Similarly we might have GPS readings proving mountains are growing taller, but we can’t directly perceive it even if we watched the mountain for a lifetime. We are locked into a certain human-scale, we must rely on instruments or recordings for anything outside the human-scale.

All of this is why I love these time-lapse videos by Keith Loutit:

See Keith Loutit’s channel on vimeo for more. These are not just time-lapse, they are also tilt-shift. The end result is that objects look like little models rather than real people or objects.

Explanations of tilt-shift usually emphasize how the images are produced, but explain little about why we perceive them to be tiny models. I believe it comes down to the behavior of physical lenses and relative scales. You might think viewing a detailed model of a house would be the same as viewing the full size house, if viewed from the same scaled distance. It sounds exactly equivalent. But you are not viewing from some mathematical point, our eyes and camera lenses have a certain physical size, and a related physical focal length. How these sizes compare to what we are viewing greatly affects the resulting images.

Our brain knows the depth of field artifacts here could “only” come from viewing small objects. Except here we were tricked. So tilt-shift and time-lapse complement each other, they mess with our mind’s sense of both space and time. Both tell us this isn’t normal human-scale, these look like tiny objects and they move like tiny objects. It trivializes everything, these are toys, they are funny.

The rub is they are completely real. That’s why I think this succeeds as art: the videos make you see normal life very differently. What strikes me with these videos is how arbitrary the human-scale really is. Our eyes and cameras are a certain size, and our attention spans are a certain length, but are these universals? Perhaps some alien or artificial entity would perceive us more like these videos, and less like we subjectively experience life. And what would be the consequences of that?