Monday, June 6, 2011

Untying the Knots - Distance & Perspective

Distance and Perspective
in Physics and in Life

by The High Priest of Prickly Bog

Which of us as a small child has not looked at moon, whilst being driven down a highway, and wondered— how does it manage to keep pace with such a fast car? Soon we start to notice that the mountains which are very far away are moving very slowly, whereas the trees that are close by are whizzing past at a rapid rate. Of course, eventually, we learn that it is the extreme distance of the moon from us which allows it to appear to retain its position in relation to ours, because, compared to that measurement, the distance that we have travelled in our car is negligible. It would work the same way if we were on the moon and could see a car on earth driving a mile or so. It would not appear to have moved.
So it is the ratio of the distance of the observer (from the car) to the distance between the two points (beginning of car's journey… end of car's journey) which defines how much difference the observer will notice. The closer we get… the more disparity there appears to be between the two points.

I have found this principle to work similarly in many aspects of life.

As a textile designer I often have to match colors very specifically… sometimes close enough is just not close enough. I would place the color tab I need to match next to the tab of the color I have mixed upon my white desk and examine them for differences. But I discovered something odd. If the color was very pale, let's say a pale yellow… then I could see the subtle differences between the two tabs fairly easily and correct them, but if the color was, say… navy blue, then the differences would be very hard to see. However, if I took a piece of black paper, and put the two navy tabs upon it, then I could see the differences much more clearly. So I tried matching the two pale yellow tabs on the black background, but now I found it hard to see the difference between the two of them.
It occurred to me that background color I was using was conceptually the same as the distance to the moon. By placing the two yellow tabs on a white background, which is close to them, I was bringing the distance of my perspective closer, so that the distance between them would be more noticeable. And by placing them on a black background, which is very different to them, I was moving my perspective much further away which, predictably, made them seem more similar. Conversely, black is a lot closer to navy blue and so, obviously, the whole experiment worked in exactly the opposite way for the navy tabs.

One day, a friend of mine who had just come back from a trip on a cruise ship was explaining to me just how well the ship's crew had taken care of him on the trip. "They were so good, Mario," he explained, "that when I asked for ketchup with my fries, they brought me what looked like ketchup… but when I tasted it, guess what? It was cocktail sauce!" He was positively delighted that his ketchup had been upgraded in such a fashion.
Now, at first I didn't get it. What's the difference, I thought. Cocktail sauce is basically ketchup… isn't it… with some other stuff thrown in. It just didn't seem that big of a difference to me. But as I thought about it, this idea of perspective cropped up in my mind, and I realized that my friend was just a lot closer to ketchup than I was, inasmuch as he consumes it much more often than do I. So from his perspective, that subtle difference was quite important, but from mine… well, it appeared inconsequential.

Possibly because thinking about something a lot tends to bring one closer to it, I am noticing, more and more these days, how this simple principle of physics and geometry seems to conceptually affect human relations in many areas.
For example, when we are close to any given culture, we tend to experience the diversity within it, whereas when we are removed from a culture… well, it all looks the same. If we don't know any black people, or any white people, or any Jews, or Mexicans, or Hindus, or Muslims… then they each seem to fall well within their stereotyped definitions of color or type. (For some of us, they all fall within the same definition– foreigners!) But as we draw closer and closer we start to notice that they come in all different shapes, sizes and colors– even within the same "group," and as we get still closer we notice that they all actually behave differently from each other as well… just as do the members of our culture. In fact, sometimes we get so close that we see more differences between them, than between them and us.

In closing, I would like to say that I make no judgment about what is the "right" perspective to have. In some cases a distant generalized perspective is actually more useful, and in others, it is the details which are most important. I leave it up to you to choose which to use, and when, with the hope that having thought about it this way will have helped you to make that choice with greater clarity.

I would love to hear any examples you might have come across of this principle at work. Please share them with us below.