By a Hair

We bought a new TV, hi-def, flat screen, thin, our first foray into up-to-date entertainment equipment. When I was a kid my grandfather bought a TV for my grandmother. I knew he bought it for her because he preferred to listen to the radio. My grandmother (my mother’s mother) lived a very narrow life. I remember her mostly with an apron on, cooking and cleaning. I don’t think she ever went anywhere.. But after all the house work was done my grandmother would sit with her apron still on in front of her new TV, a console model with about an eighteen-inch black and white screen, and watch baseball. She never went to a game in her life, didn’t even listen to games on the radio which many people did then, never paid any attention to any other sport. I think the games were probably between the Pacific Coast League teams since all the major league teams were east of St. Louis, and I don’t remember any of their games coming all the way across the country. Why she took a fancy to baseball only illustrates the inscrutableness of the human mind. She also liked to watch Lawrence Welk—a-one, a-two.

My mother never bought a TV until I was out of the house, and I never had one until I started teaching. My first year we rented a house that was furnished, including a TV. Then for two years we lived in the woods with only a fireplace for entertainment. When we moved back to town we bought a TV (color) for the kids. “Sesame Street” was only a few years old.

Earlier, when I was a graduate student and getting most of my entertainment from KPFA in Berkeley, I had met Gordon, someone I knew at Occidental, in one of my classes. He also lived in Berkeley and we commuted to SF State together. He was married to Millie, and we got into the young couples thing. Millie’s parents didn’t like to see her deprived just because she was married to a struggling graduate student, so they bought Gordon and Millie a new console color TV. It was quite a novelty. Each week Linnea and I would go to their house to watch Star Trek. On the old sets you could adjust each of the three primary colors, so after getting moderately stoned we would twiddle the knobs until we got a satisfactory psychedelic effect (it was the late sixties, and light shows were bending minds at the Fillmore in San Francisco). We would then turn off the sound and put on a Lord Buckley record. Enjoy.

Back to our new TV, not too big, fifty diagonal inches of lush color. Like a window. What struck me was the clarity. Individual strands of hair can be seen—a lady’s windblown locks or small hairs standing like needles along a backlit arm (although there’s no hair there, only illuminated pixels). Well, of course, you say. It’s high definition. As if that explained anything. For a hair to appear on the screen a line of pixels must be activated, and as the hair moves different lines of pixels have to come into play. And the pixels can’t be larger than the hair. And they have to be activated quite a bit more quickly than the hair’s movement. Well, of course. But behind all that is a lot of physics, not just mechanics but the more arcane stuff all the way down to the quantum level. I know something about quantum theory, but I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m not sure anyone really understands it. But physicists and engineers know enough to use quantum mechanics to make computer chips and plasma pixels that imitate reality quite well. (The old TV sets used to scroll; now parts of the data stream sometime get lost in space).  And I should add that all this pixel activating information is brought to my house by a hair (maybe a little larger), an optical fiber. Amazing. If you want wonders, you needn’t look much further.

The science behind all this technology is weird, operates at a scale that is close to unimaginable (imagine, if you can, all the little circuits that must be doing stuff in your cell phone) and is reasonably comprehensible to relatively few people. But it’s no big deal as long as I can text. The basic theory of evolution, on the other hand, is not nearly as mysterious as quantum theory, and it sets out to explain phenomena that is readily apparent to us (why are some animals not like the others? Why do I look somewhat but not exactly like my dad? Why do certain antibiotics no longer work?). But evolution, unlike quantum theory, comes up against a counter text. What could be a simpler and more powerful explanation than God did it? Why is this true?  God says so. At which point all arguments and all reason run into the adamantine wall of faith.

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