''For, after all, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing... Anyone who considers himself in this way will be terrified at himself, and, seeing his mass, as given him by nature, supporting him between these two abysses of infinity and nothingness, will tremble at these marvels'' (Pascal, Pensees
, section 199). We humans have been pushing back the frontier between ourselves and the immense for half a millennium now: from a dome of twinkling lights the sky has assumed unimaginable depths. The frontier between ourselves and the small has also receded, but that history has received comparatively little attention, a lack that Joseph Amato works toward rectifying in this odd but fascinating new book. Dust
is about dust, at least initially: facts and figures about its pervasiveness, the history of mankind's relationship with it (and its cousin, dirt) from ancient times to our own. But dust is really just a metaphor for our image of what is smallest, a signpost on the boundary between the visible and the invisible. The invention of the microscope opened whole new worlds of minuteness underneath the mote, shifting our perception of the adversary from visible filth and decay to the more elusive and sinister world of bacteria, virus, and prion (yes, there's an entity even smaller than a virus). And the progressive discovery of subatomic particles of less and less mass presses the limits of our imagination of the small in analogous fashion to our overstretched abilities to understand our distance from the quasars. Dust
is ultimately a meditation on the capacity of our imagination to process our rapidly increasing scientific and mathematical knowledge of physical reality -- or to apprehend what Pascal already intuited three centuries ago: that we stand between ''abysses'' above and below us. Joseph Amato is a history of ideas devotee, fascinated by great implications of obscure things, and overlooked implications of large themes. If your interests are similar, you might want to look at his Victims and Values: A History and a Theory of Suffering
, which criticizes the modern politicization of victimhood and calls for a recognition that ''a lifetime is a matter of sacrifices, and its meaning can only be rendered by stories of sacrifices''; and Guilt and Gratitude: A Study of the Origins of Contemporary Conscience
, which compares traditional and Enlightenment concepts of guilt, sacrifice, and gratitude.
An Eighth Day View:
While the story of the big has often been told, the story of the small has not yet even been outlined. With "Dust," Joseph Amato enthralls the reader with the first history of the small and the invisible. "Dust" is a poetic meditation on how dust has been experienced and the small has been imagined across the ages. Examining a thousand years of Western civilization--from the naturalism of medieval philosophy, to the artistry of the Renaissance, to the scientific and industrial revolutions, to the modern worlds of nanotechnology and viral diseases--"Dust" offers a savvy story of the genesis of the microcosm.
Dust, which fills the deepest recesses of space, pervades all earthly things. Throughout the ages it has been the smallest yet the most common element of everyday life. Of all small things, dust has been the most minute particulate the eye sees and the hand touches. Indeed, until this century, dust was simply accepted as a fundamental condition of life; like darkness, it marked the boundary between the seen and the unseen.
With the full advent of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and social control, dust has been partitioned, dissected, manipulated, and even invented. In place of traditional and generic dust, a highly diverse particulate has been discovered and examined. Like so much else that was once considered minute, dust has been magnified by the twentieth-century transformations of our conception of the small. These transformations--which took form in the laboratory through images of atoms, molecules, cells, and microbes--defined anew not only dust and the physical world but also the human body and mind. Amato dazzles the reader with his account of how this powerful microcosm challenges the imagination to grasp the magnitude of the small, and the infinity of the finite.
"Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000"