The Importance of Dots

It is often the little things that are the basis of progress… So let me tell you a little story about the tiniest thing on earth: the dot.

Thousands of years ago, a man in his solitude scanned the night sky and saw all those dots shining like so many still fireflies, and, perhaps for fun, he decided to join them together to form shapes. This is how zodiac signs and astronomy were born.

Far away, in ancient India, the dot symbolized beauty and the eye of knowledge. But even more, the dot they called “shunya-bindu” (शून्यबिन्दु) represented what we nowadays know as zero. It was first a placeholder and then a fully fledged number, for when it is added to the right of the representation of any given digit, the value of the digit is multiplied by ten. This is how our current numbers and decimal numeration system were born.

While drawing or painting, visual artists of all times used to fix a dot – or more specifically a point in space – which was traditionally visualized from the tip of their thumb. Eventually, when this point receded so far away in space, it became known as a “vanishing point”. A vanishing point is where all converging lines of a landscape meet at the horizon. This is how perspective and geometry were born.

One day, medieval musicians were tired of having to rely solely on their memories to remember songs. So they started to use dots, named “puncti”, placed on or between four lines to represent the pitch and duration of a sound. This is how musical notation and programming were born.

In the modern era, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, dots were used in many other symbolic forms: bumps, holes, single tones, flashes of light… Do the terms Braille, Morse, punched card, or pixel sound familiar to you? This is how communication and coding were born.

Bridget Riley, White Discs 2, 1964, emulsion on board, 41 × 39 inches (104 × 99 cm) © Bridget Riley 2021. All rights reserved.

(The text above has been used as foreword for the book “The All-Round Activity Book” available from Amazon)