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#261 :: Chinese Magnifier

October 27, 2004

Some 18,000 years ago, he squats by a pond on an island near a great ocean, drinking. Barely 3 feet high, he cups his small hand and sips. Ragged breaths rake his lungs. He is winded. The pygmy mammoth went down hard, bellowing mad, four of their spears sunk into its flanks. Big, but quick and dangerous. Blood still drips from his feet – he had delivered the final blows to the heart and throat. He looks around, sees a broad flat leaf, and shapes it into a cup, to drink faster. He stares hard at a tiny droplet of water on its rim. It magnifies the fine leaf-hairs behind it, making them seem twice as thick as they really are. He coos, his eyes crinkling in wonder, and turns the leaf in the early light. Then he stands and joins the other men to butcher the kill. Eleven days later, a rival tribesman kills him, crushing his skull with a crude ax. Seventeen-thousand, two-hundred-and-forty-two years later, a Franciscan monk/scientist fiddling with blobs of convex and concave glass is credited with inventing the magnifying glass, and ere long, Roger Bacon’s “invention” is put into mass production. 10 years ago, I found this in a curio shop in Beijing – a double-convex slab of rearranged silicon molecules bound in a stamped-tin frame, with a jade handle. I wish I had seen the little man hunt the little mammoth. In our tool-mad age, wonder is little more than that fleeting moment between surprise and the recognition of technology.

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