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Designs in Miniature — Some Are the Most Wonderful of All

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The smaller a design is, the harder it may be to detect. But miniature designs can inspire awe even more than large ones.

In the Roaring 20s (the 20th century, not the present one), DeWitt Mott married Allegra Mitchell and discovered that she had an unusual collection: three shoeboxes full of miniature toys from Cracker Jacks boxes. Fascinated by the idea of miniature replicas of things, DeWitt started carving doll house furniture, and Mott’s Miniatures was born. The couple gathered miniatures in addition to the ones DeWitt carved. The collection grew to include tiny churches, miniature doll houses with furniture inside, and other wonders on the small scale, including microscopic chessboards with all the pieces, miniature tea sets, tiny libraries with tiny books, storefronts with shelves full of goods, and even tiny ballrooms with dancers in costume. In addition to the ones DeWitt carved by hand, they collected miniatures from around the world.

The Mott collection grew into a museum that was exhibited at Knott’s Berry Farm (a California amusement park) for 34 years, and was seen by millions. Some items were so small, they needed artificial magnifiers to appreciate, like the paintings on the heads of pins, including reproductions of Washington, Lincoln, and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Visitors were amazed at the details on such small scales, and the skill and patience of the creators to make these tiny works of art.

C.S. Lewis’s path to faith began with a miniature. He recalled that, as a child, he became enthralled by a miniature garden his brother Warnie had created inside of a tin, decorated with twigs, moss, and flowers. It set his imagination aglow with visions of other worlds, and created within him a longing for the sublime. “That was the first beauty I ever knew,” he recalled, and it aroused within his heart ideas and visions that would later strongly influence his philosophy, his novels, and his faith. John West lists the “Argument from Natural Beauty” as one of four arguments Lewis advanced that are favorable to intelligent design (The Magician’s Twin, pp. 154-155; see also the documentary film C.S. Lewis and Intelligent Design, starting at 4:20). 

Celebrations of Design

All museums are celebrations of design. One doesn’t go to a “museum of randomness” for an enjoyable afternoon. The sight of chaos and junk does not lend itself to thoughts of sublimity. While huge designs can inspire awe, like the Saturn V rocket on display at Cape Kennedy, sometimes miniature designs fascinate and lift the spirits even more. It’s truly amazing how much information can be packed into a small space.

When microfilm was invented in the 1920s, entire books could be reduced to rolls of 16mm film or sheets of “microfiche,” which some seniors may recall in libraries of their student days. These microforms reached a pinnacle when the entire Bible was reduced to a 2-inch square, requiring a microscope to read — but the patient viewer could find every punctuation mark and word faithfully represented: 773,746 words on 1,245 pages of text.

Apollo Prayer League

In the early days of NASA’s Apollo program, an ambitious engineer and pastor, Reverend John Stout, organized the Apollo Prayer League, which grew to 40,000 NASA employees. Its mission was not only to pray for the success and safety of the missions (especially after the disastrous Apollo 1 fire), but also to place some of the micro-Bibles on the moon as the Apollo missions were in the planning stages. Of the 300 that made it to lunar orbit on Apollo 14, and 100 that made it to the moon’s surface (one remains on the dashboard of the lunar rover), the few extant copies are very valuable and can fetch prices of tens of thousands of dollars or more (see Live Science). One is on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. The astronauts could not read them, of course, but it was the thought that counts.

New Realms of Micro-Miniaturization

Beyond reductions, the ability to digitize information opened up new realms of micro-miniaturization. After Apollo, NASA missions have carried digital miniatures into space. One of the first was the Voyager Record of 1977, containing text, images, and sounds of Earth aboard the twin Voyager spacecraft in digitized form on a golden disk, playable on a type of record player (with a stylus to be supplied by the space aliens). The story is told in Illustra Media’s film Living Waters, because the record included the songs of the humpback whale featured in the documentary. Some of the Mars rovers contain digital disks of signatures; the Curiosity rover, for instance, has 1.2 million names, and the Cassini spacecraft bore a disk with 616,400 signatures from 81 countries (although that disk melted with the spacecraft as it burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere in September 2017 on its “Grand Finale”). Presumably, future astronauts to the moon or Mars could recover some of these digitized records and recover the information, unless the incessant forces of radiation and dust degrade them to the point of rendering them indecipherable. That’s an important point; it is easier to degrade information than to create it!

“MoonArk”

Another notable miniature museum is in the news: Carnegie Mellon University’s “MoonArk” project.

The MoonArk is a highly collaborative and massively integrated sculpture that poetically sparks wonderment through the integration of the arts, humanities, sciences, and technologies. Comprised of four independent 2”h x 2”dia chambers and weighing a combined total of 8 ounces, it contains hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms, and earthly samples intertwined through complex narratives that blur the boundaries between worlds seen and unseen. It is designed to direct our attention from the Earth outward, into the cosmos and beyond and reflect back to Earth as an endless dialogue that speaks to our context within the universe. Impossibly small, broadly diverse, hyper-light, yet incredibly enduring, the MoonArk is designed and engineered to last thousands of years to project humanity in a most beautiful and highly significant way. [Emphasis added.]

The MoonArk is currently on tour, waiting for its opportunity to be sent to the moon in 2021 aboard a robotic lander. It’s an intriguing project, for sure, involving “18 universities and organizations, 60 team members, and over 250 contributing artists, designers, educators, scientists, engineers, choreographers, poets, writers and musicians.” But World Magazine complains that “The creators of the MoonArk left out any mention of religion or even humans’ belief in God, giving future scholars a tilted view of the beliefs that motivated so much of human art and engineering throughout history.” Be that as it may, it shows humanity’s deep desire to preserve the memories of wonders that fill our world, and the purposes that drive our individual lives and collective history.

Another Miniature “Ark”

All the above describe artificial designs. Another miniature “ark” is very different. It stores digital information found in nature: information that appeared on the planet before any human could read it. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (see National Geographic) is being planned to store the seeds of as many species of plants as possible, in order to restore Earth’s biosphere after a potential “doomsday” catastrophe. And what a catastrophe it would be, even more than the meteor or nuclear war itself, to have lost the beauty and design of the world’s plant life! Some seeds can survive thousands of years like the date palms that have been resurrected from 2,000-year-old date fruits from the time of the Roman empire (see “Fruitful Science: The Marvel of a Seed”). Seeds vary in size; the very smallest are about as small as a pinhead, and fungal spores are smaller still. Pollen, flying around the air like dust, contains the entire male genome of flowering plants.

In the Q&A section of Illustra’s film Where Does the Evidence Lead? (a modular adaptation of Unlocking the Mystery of Life), Dean Kenyon describes the storage capacity of DNA. He says that a cubic millimeter of DNA (a volume that fits between a thumb and forefinger just barely separated) can store 1018 bits of information: a trillion trillion bits. If transferred to standard DVDs, how high would the pile of disks reach? The answer is five times the height of Mount Everest, with room for three Empire State Buildings on top. That’s 37 miles of DVDs — the information in just one cubic millimeter of DNA!

Social Darwinists used to compare brain sizes to determine which hominins were more intelligent on the rise to modern humans (but see evolutionist Jordi Paps at The Conversation complaining that the “March of Progress” icon is all wrong, as Jonathan Wells showed twenty years ago in his book Icons of Evolution). What would the Social Darwinists think about a teenage girl with above-average reading skills (New Scientist) even though half her brain is missing? It’s not always size that counts. If anything, the ability to reduce a processor’s size shows more intelligent design than bragging about a large computer. We have more processing power in our smartphones than the room-sized Apollo navigating computers had. Martin Hilbert at USC (Wired Science) calculated that the average person has more processing power in his or her brain — 6.4 billion billion instructions per second — than all the world’s computers combined! And think how tiny is the brain of a honeybee, fruit fly or gnat — and yet they can fly with better aeronautical agility than a fighter aircraft.

Thinking back to Mott’s Miniatures, one can only wonder what DeWitt and Allegra would have thought of cellular nanomachines — the ultimate in miniature designs — that have come to light in the last thirty years or so. The Mott collection included “tiny tools” but nothing like these! The flagellum, ATP synthase, kinesins, and many more — not made with hands — operate at the nanometer scale with exquisite design, speed, and efficiency. Michael Behe’s new film series Secrets of the Cell features some of these machines. Each is made from digital codes by other machines that read and translate the code, then assemble the machines on a “just in time” basis. And now, with Cryo-EM microscopy opening up new vistas of miniature design at near-nanometer resolution, the future looks bright for witnessing the ultimate miniatures in even greater detail. 

Never despise small designs. Some of them are the most wonderful of all.

Image at top: Kinesin at work in the cell, from “Kinesin: The Workhorse of the Cell,” via Discovery Institute.