Thursday, August 04, 2005
"Ants?" I asked. I was unpleasantly surprised. How could he say that? I told my French teacher that I thought that was derogatory. Patronising. She seemed surprised that I was surprised. No, he doesn't mean that the workers are like ants. It's idiomatic. He just means there's a lot of work to do and everyone has there little bit to accomplish. It's just a metaphor.
If Zola had looked at the crowds thronging Paris at the end of the 19th Century and had seen only ants, where would French literature be now? And yet, and yet...
Some ten years ago I went to see Benoit Mandelbrot giving a lecture on fractals in geology. He was a big fellow with a frizz of curly hair. A larger than life personality. Born in Poland, he trained as a mathematican in France but only received the freedom to invent when he went to work for IBM in the US. He made a point of not letting his focus rest solely on mathematcis. Instead he went to other subjects: the natural sciences and physics to examine the mathematics underlying natural states such as chaos.
Somewhere at the beginning of his talk he showed an image of a bed of pebbles. You knew it was a bed of pebbles because it looked like a bed of pebbles and also because there was a camera lens cap for scale with the word Nikon written across it. That's what geologists generally use as a scale because, being a disorganised bunch, they rarely have a proper scale in their pocket.
But in the next slide, there was a man standing next to the lens cap. And first you assumed it must be a tiny model of a man, and then you suddenly realised that it was a sophisticated trick: the lens cap was actually five feet high and the bed of pebbles was not a bed of pebbles but a bed of huge boulders outcropping on a large stretch of mountainside.
What Mandelbrot wanted to show by this is that nature is fractal. That the same structures occur at different scales, evolving organically from one scale to the next.
And so, those ants seated on the steps of Grande Arche, they were clearly not ants, but everything constructed around them was contrived to make us believe that they were ants. Ants without freedom or responsibility. Ants who would do the bidding of their masters. Ants who would construct more cities just like this one. Ants who would march happily into the future...