Naming The Little Things

In 2005, Yale University Press published, for the first time in English, Ernst Gombrich’s charming children’s book, A Little History of the World. A new companion volume, A Little History of Science was released recently, and Suzanne Klingenstein believes its author, William Bynum, captures something essential for children and adults:

He begins his second triad of 13 chapters with Bacon and Descartes, zooming in on Descartes’s insights that he had to start over again, and that he had to gain perfect clarity about the difference between matter and mind. In this second triad, Bynum moves—by way of Newton, Linnaeus, Lavoisier, Maxwell, Darwin, and many others—from the mind-body split to the sighting of bacteria. Bynum begins his third triad with the discovery of the mechanisms underlying infectious diseases, and moves in a grand sweep onward to discoveries of ever-smaller particles in physics and biology, until he arrives at bosons and the molecular building blocks of genes. And then, miraculously, one is tempted to say, the reversal happens: Out of these tiniest of particles, one of which (the Higgs boson) is still a conjecture, the huge blueprints of life emerge, a potential “theory of everything” via string theory and the Human Genome Project—both of which have come within cognitive reach only through splitting the world into ever-smaller elements. …

In the biblical “beginning,” the world is divided into ever-smaller units, ending in the emergence of the consciousness that names them.