01 December 2000

Creatures great and small - digitized

Many things are more concrete in their seeming than in their objective reality. Lovelace's friend, Mr Babbage, recently visited in some irritation; a street musician had insulted his numerical pedantry (not to mention questioning his legitimacy) when he argued that the new millennium begins with the year 2001 rather than 2000.

Lovelace could offer him little solace, believing that the millennium lies more in human minds. Whatever the reality, calendar mathematics is overwhelmed by our perception (no doubt influenced by Analytical Engine displays) of the instant when the digits cascade to 2000. And yet this powerful moment is illusion rooted in one cultural system, meaningless against the vast history of the cosmos.

Still, unwillingly, Lovelace has been drawn into the millennial mood. She feels an urge to look forward and backward, as if this arbitrary date were a meaningful cusp. In this frame of mind, for example, she watched a BBC televisual series "Walking With Dinosaurs". Through Analytical Engine graphics, this project brought Mesozoic fossils to an illusion of life in Lovelace's own Holocene parlour. Despite some scientific reservations, one central achievement remains: the animation exposed fallacious assumptions, producing a new biomechanical understanding.

Giant long-necked creatures swung their heads horizontally for efficiency, tails not tripod supports but counterweights. Grounded pterosaurs folded their wings for a stilt-like strut. Marine reptiles swam, limbs in beautiful counter-phase, with a land-born walking rhythm.

Lovelace found this virtual resurrection of the ancient and huge a pleasing balance to the modelling of the new and minuscule 'nano-machines' of which Babbage is so fond. Even its failings serve as a caution for futurologists using similar methods. These great saurians also serve as reminders of mortality, of the vastness of time, and of the strangeness and ubiquity of the phenomenon of life - a phenomenon soon to be joined by various digital, mechanical and cyborg intelligences.

"In the beginning was the Word". Lovelace has always been enchanted by the image behind that resonant Talmudic vision: that a creator breathed one vast, vibrant word and the information therein crystallised the universe from chaos. When we take the role of creator, the word is small and digital, breathing life into correspondingly small silicon universes. Looking from our invented millennial gateway, however, Lovelace does not feel that the ambition or reach of the word has in any way changed.