Rhetorical Radiants

Fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded just before my twelfth birthday, late April, 1986–25 years ago yesterday. Is the math right? For me that’s almost a half-life ago.

Now, I’m no scholar of nuclear accidents, but I am interested in the emerging narratives about the Fukushima aftermath that position it in a family of catastrophes such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Certainly there has been a lot of speculative discussion since the Fukushima incident about leaking/leaching radiation, toxic mists, jet streams, ocean currents, impacts zones, and the various ecological slices that will be differently impacted by chemicals and hot metals. For example, there’s this Nancy Grace clip.

In the PBS clip above (above N. Grace), the portrait is grim–birds with smaller brains and strange tumors, etc.–and the discussion of sealed away clumps of radioactive material lapses into near absurdity, particularly at the idea of who will keep watch on the plutonium whose half-life is 24,000 years.

In “Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?” Adam Higginbotham of Wired.com provides a look from multiple sides at the unsettled questions about how animals have responded in the wake of nuclear meltdown. First dealing with optimists who can find examples of resilient wildlife, the article includes those who turn to other forms of evidence to leverage claims about the welfare of the post-Chernobyl ecosystem.

But a pair of scientists are now calling these claims into serious question. According to US-based evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau, there is scant evidence to back up the idea of Chernobyl as a radioactive Wild Kingdom. “People say these things–they’re simply anecdotes,” Mousseau says. “It’s totally irrational.” Nonetheless, last December, the Ministry of Emergencies–the Ukrainian agency responsible for overseeing the Exclusion Zone–announced that it would formally open the zone to mass tourism in 2011. In January, meanwhile, the country’s parliament approved a multibillion-dollar plan to build two new Russian-designed nuclear reactors in western Ukraine, some of the first to be started there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I am gathering tiny collections like these in anticipation of ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, a class I will be teaching in the fall semester. And by no means am I thinking of these preliminary tracings as complete or even all that thorough. In fact, that these are incomplete–that the very possibility of knowing radiation’s reach in space and time–is part of what allows us to witness how scientific debate operates (not only in scholarly or researcherly circles but in popular ones, as well). It’s almost as if we can trace consequentiality itself as a matter of concern, and what I find surprising (or at least interesting) about this is that the temporal frame is many multiples of human lifetimes long. What I mean is that it’s curious to me not only how we talk about immediate threats (absent visual confirmation…as is the case with mildly radioactive carrots, for example) but also how journalists and scientists grace such an uncertain horizon as the one many, many thousands of years from now when the plutonium at Chernobyl falls irradiant.

A Non-Scientist Would Say

From Eco’s The Infinity of Lists, a book whose recommendation I poached several months ago from Facebook:

But, from its discovery onwards, eighty years passed before the platypus was defined as a monotreme mammal; in the course of that time it had to be decided how and where to classify it, and until that moment it remained, rather disturbingly, something the size of a mole, with little eyes, front paws with four claws of the kind paws, with a tail, a duck’s bill, paws that it used to swim and to dig its burrow, the capacity to produce eggs and that of feeding its young with milk from its mammary glands.

This is exactly what a non-scientist would say about the animal upon observing it. And it’s worth noting that through this (incomplete) description by list of properties, a person would still be able to tell a platypus from an ox, whereas saying that it is a monotreme mammal would enable to one to recognize it should he come across one. (218)

I say “platypus” far too often to mean something is unfit for well-established schema. The platypus identification crisis Eco explains in this selection is not unlike what happens when, whether or not we have arrived yet at the name “amoeba,” Elkins’ scientist puzzles over how to decide upon words for such unexpected visual patterns. Yet a technical-symbolic complex presses ahead, producing totalizing references, such as “monotreme mammal,” that concentrate, reduce, and mystify a glut of describable features. The move to summary-phrase is efficient in the sense that it reduces word counts and also shrinks audience. This is another way of saying it promotes specialization.

Eco visits upon summaries and lists (thick with tropes in the example above…mole-like, duck’s bill) a historical tension:

On the one hand, it seems that in the Baroque period people strove to find definitions by essence that were less rigid than those of medieval logic, but on the other hand the taste for the marvellous led to the transformation of every taxonomy into lists, every tree into a labyrinth. In reality, however, lists were already being used during the Renaissance to strike the first blows at the world order sanctioned by the great medieval summae. (245)

Summae, not quite in the same sense as “summary,” but not far off, either, in its interest in total coverage. Lists, though, are a different vehicle altogether. What summaries seek to contain, lists allow to breathe, to roam. Now, I’m not ready to say these conditions generalize to all summaries or all lists, but the contain-roam distinction–and much of Eco’s “illustrated essay” for that matter, is useful for thinking about what these abstract forms do differently, etc., and how they complement each other.


Elkins – The Object Stares Back (1996)

That The Object Stares Back is only part of the picture; in fact, it’s the same name as one of the six chapters in Elkins’s 1996 meditation on seeing. The objects that stare back include everything from stars, moth wings, radar imagery, and insects ill-fitted to our schema for recognizing them. These objects are, although named differently, more like quasi-objects because when they stare back, they implicate us in a “tangled web of seeing” that challenges whether the human observer is an “autonomous, independent, stable self” (74). Elkins goes on, “This is the kind of idea that is popular in academia because it is so exhilaratingly radical—but at the same time it is almost entirely unbelievable, which is to say we cannot believe it if we want to keep going” (74).

The object-stare-back is a peculiar notion: “In a grocery store, I do not think for a moment that rows of vegetables and the cans of soup might be looking at me as I speed down the aisle” (73). And yet there is an emerging stare-back that accompanies positionally sentience: locatable as something suspended between products and consumer positions, if we can link this phenomena with something like the Shell gas station icon rolling up on the GPS interface. This is not quite the same as the can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle peering at shoppers, but is does seem like a new variation on the stare-back.

In the chapter on “Blindness,” staring takes another turn: “Staring is an unusual kind of seeing, and there’s usually something odd going on when I find myself staring. Perhaps staring is a sign that an artwork has malfunctioned: it has arrested my thinking, slowed me down, paralyzed me so I can barely move” (209). Intriguing here that staring establishes an irregular relationship to time; in staring, so much comes to a standstill. Elkins also compares staring to gazing: “That’s how I would distinguish a stare or a glance from a gaze: stares and glances are focused on details” (210). Barthes’ Camera Lucida comes to mind here. That staring is an unusual kind of seeing, that it is “focused on details,” that it brings time to a standstill, could mean that it is located at the critical juncture between studium and punctum. It is, as I now think of it, at the point where the punctum‘s sting (not only photographically, but arguably extending into the world) is suspended, noticed in such a way that it heeds a kind of proprioceptive pull toward studium. In time, whatever holds the stare might end up there, something studied.

This holds up in Elkins’s discussion of German realist painter, Franz von Lenbach who appears almost straining in a series of photographs in the chapter, “Blindness”:

In picture after picture and even in his self-portrait paintings, [von Lenbach] has this same faintly ridiculous pompous stare. It may have been an accustomed squint or an affectation—as if to say, I am a great and penetrating artist—but I almost prefer to think it was the symptom of a concentrated effort to see. (He wasn’t a first-rate painter, and I also wonder if he might have been hampered by the very intensity of everything under his gaze, so that there wasn’t much left to see.)

Not much left to see: stare-punctum becomes crushing-gaze-studium. Why not? Could such effortful seeing generalize to over-exerted writing? I don’t know. But the build-up clicks for me. To re-enact the von Lenbach expression, I tried it out, let my MacBook Pro’s built-in camera capture me imitating the painter (Think, think: “I am a great and penetrating artist”). 3…2…1… Yet I cannot unpick the loopknot: Is this the computer staring back at me? Me staring back at me? Me staring back at you? You staring back at my Macbook?


By the way, to make this face I had only to think about the fact that I wrote a version of this entry yesterday late afternoon and then failed to save it: big frown and scrunched brow.

Ahead of much of what else is here, I appreciated Elkins’s attention in Chapter Two to the function of tropes in science. A researcher sees something unrecognizable, unclassifiable, and assigns to it a metaphor that links inexplicable thing (e.g., an amoeba) to an existing schema. “But [the amoeba’s] body is very strange, very distant from mine, and my mind is clotted with analogies: the amoeba reaches out ‘arms,’ it rolls over itself like a tractor head. I cannot experience the amoeba except through mechanical and biological metaphors” (158). Through substitution (i.e., tropes), recombination and, in effect, new knowledge become possible. Tropes contribute clarity and contour. Elkins identifies another example of this in a doctor’s puzzling over a previously unknown (undisclosed) condition in which the tongue’s surface changes while others aspects of its functioning are in tact. The doctor does not know what to call it, but based on pattern similarities, it becomes “Cerebriform Tongue or Cartographic Tongue” (147). Such naming is complicated, right?, because it is both consequential and underpinned with uncertainty—a provisional relationship to knowledge. In the turn to mapping, a more tightly fitted description would be Raised Relief Tongue, but “raised relief” risks a degree of domain specificity that could undermine the necessarily general level of association between topography and the tongue.

There’s more, but I have other stuff to tend to. The more: a noticably arhetorical discussion of empathy (137), a fascinating section on cyclophobic adaptations (75), a disputable point about visual desperation (156), literary flourishes citing Kafka and, at the end of the book, Wallace Stevens (the conclusion, by the way, is titled “Envoi,” which I read as “Ennui” the first time; need another chapter titled “Oops: When the Wrong Word Stares Back”).

The bit on cyclophobic adaptations is good enough (by which I mean worthy of a return) to blockquote here:

The world is full of eyes, and sight is everywhere. But there is a special category, another kind of eye that is neither real (like my eyes) nor metaphorical (like the “eyes ” of rainbows and halos). It sees, and yet it is blind. I mean the fake eyes some insects grow on their bodies in order to frighten away predators. Butterflies and moths tend to have these eyes on their lower wings, so that they can keep them hidden under the upper wings until they need to flash them in some animal’s face. The feect startles practically any animal that can see: it keeps away birds, lizards, frogs, and small mammals, and it also scares many people. So many animals are frightened of eyes that biologists have a word for it—cyclophobism. (75)

Science, Etc.

We’re wrapping up Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants Tuesday night in 516. I won’t offer a full-blown review here; maybe another time. For now, it suffices to characterize this as a precarious read for how out of the blue and underdeveloped some of these ideas are. That is, Kelly’s discussion sometimes advances solidly for pages and then, suddenly and without forewarning, it plunges into the quicksand. I am saying this even while I continue to hold much of Kelly’s other work in high regard, yet I have found in What Technology Wants more of these soft spots than I expected I would.

For instance, there’s this:

Yet there is one legitimate way in which we can claim that Columbus discovered America, and the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu discovered gorillas, and Edward Jenner discovered vaccines. They “discovered” previously locally known knowledge by adding it to the growing pool of structured global knowledge. Nowadays we would call that accumulating of structured global knowledge science. […] Columbus’s encounter put America on the map of the globe, linking it to the rest of the known world, integrating its own inherent body of knowledge into the slowly accumulating, unified body of verified knowledge. Columbus joined two large continents of knowledge into a growing consilient structure. (336)

That this turns up near the end, in a chapter called “Technology’s Trajectories” and a section called “Structure,” and, as well, that it is fitted between an ever-more-conciliatory argument for technological determinism and a large-scale, large-tarp theory of everything-technology called the Technium leaves me wishing for just a slightly tighter linkage between Columbus and science—if that linkage must be attempted in the first place, especially by putting Columbus on stage with du Chaillu and Jenner. Stepping sof…quicksand, possibly worse.

Here’s another puzzler, two pages later:

The evolution of knowledge began with relatively simple arrangements of information. The most simple organization was the invention of facts. Facts, in fact, were invented. Not by science but by the European legal system, in the 1500s. In court lawyers had to establish agreed-upon observations as evidence that could not shift later. Science adopted this useful innovation. Over time, the novel ways in which knowledge could be ordered increased. This complex apparatus for relating new information to old is what we call science. (338)

Maybe it’s adequate for Kelly to trace the origin of “facts” to Europe in the 1500s. But I read this and feel unsatisfied, fatigued: the linkage is too crude. Again, this is in a brief section called “Structure,” which is, in effect, a tale of science as beholden to the Technium’s build-up. And that I am impatient with the idea of facts being invented the way Kelly says they were is all the more aggravated by the unnecessarily grandiose flourishes in the book’s concluding chapter, e.g., where this theory inflates to include (or assume correspondence with) God: “If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him. I’ll retell the Great Story of this arc again, one last time in summary, because it points way beyond us” (354). The circuit from science to facts to God: that’s a lot to expect from one unifying theory of technology.

Good Ideas

I like much of Steven Johnson’s stuff, and undoubtedly I will pick up a copy of his latest book project, Where Good Ideas Come From, though probably not until next summer. As I watched this TEDtalk, though, I’m dissatisfied with how little work on rhetorical invention surfaces here. Johnson’s “liquid network” is an intriguing metaphor, indeed: drink together, think together…eureka! Or, sometimes, “I’ve got nothing. May I have another?” But I wonder whether this “natural history of innovation” will do much more to advance thinking about how good ideas happen than did Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act (1987), a book whose premises have by now become a given for contemporary rhetorical thinking. This “noodling around” and “hacking” is fascinating stuff, especially when such innovative acts are paired with vivid, thoughtful anecdotes, a storytelling strategy Johnson deploys with distinction. Since Johnson is great at making theoretical concepts accessible, maybe this new project will be a good fit with existing work on invention. On the other hand, absent some acknowledgment of a larger family of ideas related to invention, e.g., “systematic serendipity” (via Merton via Halavais, a concept we discussed yesterday in ENGL326) or contingency (an alternative to managerial rhetoric Muckelbauer develops smartly in The Future of Invention), the originary “where” from which good ideas come will remain partial, incomplete, problematically runny.

Allowing that I haven’t picked up the book (!), I look forward to reading it with these few provisional concerns in mind. In that sense, I guess this amounts to some sort of TED-motivated pre-review. Furthermore, I wrote it while sitting all alone in my campus dorm-office, which probably means good ideas here are few, far between.

Sklar, “Methodological Conservativism”

Yesterday morning I spent an hour or so finishing up the reading for a philosophy of science reading group that convenes at EMU later this afternoon. The group met a few times late in the winter semester, but their schedule was at odds with mine. I wasn’t able to attend a single meeting. A friend from last fall’s new faculty orientation has organized the group, and for a few different reasons, I agreed to participate. Among those reasons are 1) eclectic reading, 2) cross-disciplinary conversations, and 3) the possibility that I might at some point teach ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology. Philosophy of science and rhetoric of science and technology are more close siblings than twins, but I see enough resemblances to make these conversations worth checking out.

We’re working through Lawrence Sklar’s Philosophy and Spacetime Physics (1985), the Intro and Chapter One are up for this week’s get-together. The introduction is divided into “The Epistemology of Geometry” (4), “The Ontology of Spacetime Theories and Their Explanatory Role” (8), “Causal Order and Spatiotemporal Order” (15), and “Reflections on These Essays” (19).  In that final section, “Reflections,” Sklar presents a few of key points related to his own methods and how to read the book. First, he nods to his earlier book, Space, Time, and Spacetime, saying readers would find some useful staging there, but adding that the current collection of essays should provide enough context to proceed without needing to begin at some earlier work on these topics.  Sklar adopts “a rather ‘dialectic’ means of investigation” (20), and appears wary of contextualizing spacetime philosophy only in terms of contemporary developments in physics. Instead, he explains, “the essays try to show that the work of theoretical science takes place in a context in which various philosophical presuppositions are, consciously or unconsciously, continuously being utilized to reach theoretical conclusions” (19). Those “philosophical presuppositions,” then, are like trails of crumbs scattered unevenly out of various arcs of thought. The context Sklar prefers would allow us to do a better job of noticing flecks and textures in this mélange rather than deferring to philosophically to whatever is trending scientifically these days. Sklar reminds readers that “a good way to approach this book would be to read through the essays from beginning to end, not worrying about the places where full comprehension is elusive” (21). Noted: not worrying.

C. 1, “Methodological Conservativism”
The chapter begins with a passage from John Barth’s novel, The End of the Road. I’ll share the entire epigraph, since it nicely encapsulates the problem Sklar addresses in the chapter, i.e., how to decide.

Don’t let yourself get stuck between alternatives, or you’re lost. You’re not that strong. If the alternatives are side by side choose the one on the left; if they’re consecutive in time, choose the earlier. If neigher of these applies, choose the alternative whose name begins with the earlier letter of the alphabet. These are the principles of Sinistrality, Antecedence, and Alphabetic Priority–there are others, and they’re arbitrary, but useful. Good-bye.

There are, of course, dangers in attempting to sum up a chapter like this that so deliberately comes at things from as many angles as possible, but, in effect, the chapter echoes with “continue believing what you already believe” or “don’t fall victim to alluring new theories that are at odds with personal knowledge” (there are moments early on when this reminds me of Polanyi…brief moments).  Sklar offers as an example that “There is nothing, as far as I can see, in the physical theory which existed prior to 1917 which would lead one to prefer a theory of curved spacetime to one with ‘universal forces'” (31). I write this as someone who has never studied physics, and yet the guiding principle, if I can reduce it to one, is that methodological conservativism wards against a breezy philosophical manner willing to believe something new when its warrants are at odds with what one already knows (confirmed empirically, or by direct sense experience).

Sklar writes elliptically (i.e., with oblong orbit) around these terms, allowing for possibilities that concepts like “conservativism” might not be quite right:

Obviously the application of the conservative principle is simpler and more decisive in the case where we are concerned with sticking with a hypothesis which we already do believe than it is in the case of selecting from among a set of novel hypotheses. So let us focus on this situation. Is the adoption of the rule justified or reasonable even in these cases? Clearly the rule does resolve a dilemma for us–it tells us to stick with the theory we have and not to drop it for one of the newly discovered alternatives nor to lapese into a skeptical suspension of belief. But is conservativism itself warranted? (32)

I guess the next question for me would be “What does a standard preference for conservativism obstruct, delay, or waylay?”  Sklar seems to have an interest in the consequences of too willingly believing what’s new, but there must likewise be consequences linked to the alternative he recommends. One clear gain is that methodological conservativism holds skepticism at bay, but I am, after reading, still wondering about the reach of these ideas, their implications.

In Part V of the chapter, Sklar situates conservativism in relation to five different belief justifications.  The justifications are
1. Justification by Intuition
2. Justification by Codification of Practice
3. Justification by Appeal to Higher Rules
4. Justification by Empirical Grounding
5. Justification by Appeal to Means and Ends
Justification itself aligns with a rationalist credo, and, in its philosophical orientation, this work gravitates toward empirical rationalism (I’m almost sure Sklar would trouble this characterization, even describing it as unhelpful “sloganeering”). 

A few more illustrative quotations/terms:
“A hidebound refusal ever to change one’s belief’s is nothing but irrational dogmatism. But the desire to maintain the beliefs one already has unless there is some good reason to change them is as rational as the programmatic commitment to maintain one’s social institutions unless there is some reason to revise them” (38).

lemmata (41): “a subsidiary position or proposition introduced to support or advance a larger proposition”

“I think an argument might go like this. Suppose we believe H1 and then discover H2 which is just as plausible, on all but conservative grounds, as H1 relative to present evidence. What should we do? The conservative tells us that considerations of utility recommend our sticking to our present belief. But that is not necessarily what utility does necessitate.  What we should do depends, first of all, on the relevant utlities in the particular case  of not believing anything, believing something and having it be true, and believing something and having it be false. Just how important is it (on either “practical” or “purely scientific” grounds) for us to have some belief or other? If it is not all that important, then the thing to do is to admit that one just has no idea which hypothesis is true and remain in a skeptical withholding of judgment until further evidence is in” (42).

“Conservativism is not just a minor ‘last resort’ principle invoked only when all other principles have failed to do the selecting job for us. Conservativism is, in fact, so deeply and pervasively embedded in our schema for deciding what it is rational to believe that once we have seen the full role that it plays we are likely to reject the alternatives to it of skepticism, which tells us to withhold belief from any of the alternatives, of permissivism which tells us it is all right to pick any one we choose, or of speaking of our choices as being ‘adoptions’ rather than beliefs” (43).

Sklar develops the idea of “methodological conservativism” for a particular philosophical quandary, but these ideas may very well generalize to other philosophical domains any time something new and something pragmatically known collide.  In fact, for rhetoric and composition, there are resonances here for how people talk about continuing to do what they have always done (Does methodological conservativism help explain current-traditional pedagogy, perhaps as entrenched belief-in-action?).  One other issue I’m weighing heading into this afternoon’s meeting is Why “methodological”?  Is this a method for philosophizing? A method for thinking? A method for deciding what to believe? And what, besides skepticism, permissivism, and semantic reframings are alternatives to this methodological orientation, not only in physics, but elsewhere, as well?

I-Search and Quantified Self

I am 70-percent committed to a plan for ENGL326: Research Writing this fall revolving around research networks. I’ve been reading over the syllabus and materials Geof Carter generously shared with me from a similar class he taught at SVSU recently. The basic idea here is to begin with a key (or keyless, as circumstances warrant) scholarly article in a given field of study (i.e., the student’s declared major, probably) and then trace linkages from the article to/through the various places (inc. schools of thought), times, affinities (inspirational sources, pedigree/halo re: terminal degree), and semantic fields (inc. contested terms) out of which it was written.  We will probably adopt a workshop model, maybe use CMap Tools for representing these research yarns, develop reading and research logs in something semi-private, such as Penzu, and, if things go well, lay some groundwork for a relatively focused going over of what entails “research” in their respective areas while also doing a lot of reading and writing, including some sort of an update or response to the first article. We could even write those in Etherpad for the way it lets us present a document’s evolution as video (video which invites a layer of commentary and reflection, a­­­­­s I imagine it possibly working out). If this sounds like June thinking for a class that starts in September, well, it is. Anyway, what good is early summer if not for breezily mulling things over?

Now, had I to begin again, I might create a different version of Research Writing tied in with the Quantified Self stuff. Monday’s entry on Seth Roberts’ work reminded me about this. Here is a small slice of Roberts’ article abstract, which is posted on The QS blog:

My subject-matter knowledge and methodological skills (e.g., in data analysis) improved the distribution from which I sampled (i.e., increased the average amount of progress per sample). Self-experimentation allowed me to sample from it much more often than conventional research. Another reason my self-experimentation was unusually effective is that, unlike professional science, it resembled the exploration of our ancestors, including foragers, hobbyists, and artisans.

Although the QS projects are rooted in quantification, they are not exactly bound to traditional science or notions of experimentation and measurement for public good.  Instead, they assume a useful blend between quantitative tracking and personal knowledge.  I don’t have in mind a QS-based research writing class concerned so much with “optimal living” or with diet and exercise, although I guess there’s no good reasons these things should be excluded from possibilities.  I’m thinking more along the lines of Quantified Self meets McLuhan’s media inventories meets Macrorie’s I-Search.  The class would inquire into data tracking, narrating spreadsheets, rhetorics/design of data visualization, and the epistemological bases of the sciences, while it “grabs hold of the word ‘authority’ and shakes it to find out what it means” (Macrorie, “Preface”). Again, just thinking aloud, June thinking for a class that, depending upon how things turn out this fall, starts in September 2011 or 2012.

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation
in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air
, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d

read about it before
(re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).