| Bhutan tome named world's largest book
Photo by Matt Pierson / AP
MIT scientist Michael Hawley stands behind his mammoth creation at Acme Bookbinding in Boston, where the book is put together using a specially created assembly line.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan are worlds apart geographically, culturally and technologically. For decades, M.I.T. has turned out engineers whose labors have helped fuel America's high-tech economy, while Bhutan, a remote land of Shangri-la vistas and exotic species, has pursued an economic plan whose stated goal is "gross national happiness."
Yet these two disparate worlds have touched in a research project that has produced a bit of publishing history, "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom," the largest commercial book ever published, according to Guinness World Records.
"Bhutan," to be released today, is five feet high, opens to nearly seven feet wide, and weighs more than 130 pounds. A picture book of 114 pages, it pushes the technological frontiers of digital photography and computer printing.
Each book uses a roll of paper 5 feet wide and 400 feet long, a third longer than a football field. Each copy consumes two gallons of ink and takes 24 hours of printer time.
The big book is also a philanthropic endeavor. The plan is to print 500 copies of the book, with a price of $10,000 each. Each book costs about $1,000 to produce; the remaining $9,000 will be a tax-deductible charitable contribution. The proceeds will go to the Bhutan ministry of education and into a scholarship fund to send Bhutanese students to college abroad.
The Bhutan book project can be seen as an act of engineering performance art, and the mastermind behind it is a 42-year-old computer scientist of a decidedly artistic bent, Michael Hawley. He is the director for special projects at M.I.T., but for a decade until 2002 Mr. Hawley was a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab, heading imaginative research programs like "Toys of Tomorrow" and "Things That Think."
Before M.I.T., Mr. Hawley worked at the pioneering computer graphics arm of Lucasfilm, which was spun off to eventually become Pixar Animation Studios. He then joined Steven P. Jobs at NeXT, the technically celebrated, if commercially unsuccessful, maker of graphics work-station computers. His research interests range widely across fields and disciplines touched by digital technology, including education, photography and music. An accomplished pianist, he won the Van Cliburn amateur competition in 2002. His home - a loft in a converted church here - has two pianos, including a Steinway grand.
Beyond technology and philanthropy, the book project represents an expeditionary approach to education that Mr. Hawley says he wants to expand at M.I.T. The idea, he explains, is to take students to see new places, meet people from other cultures and use technology in the field. The Bhutan book is a byproduct of four such trips from 1988 to 2002, each involving a few M.I.T. students.
"What I'm pushing at M.I.T. is that the world is our lab, not just the campus," Mr. Hawley said. "These kinds of trips can be life-altering for the people who take them. We learn from differences."
Charles Darwin is Mr. Hawley's favorite proof of the value of educational expeditions. At 22, Darwin seemed headed for the clergy after graduating from Cambridge University. But he balked, took a round-the-world voyage, and came back to present his theory of evolution in, "The Origin of Species." Without the expeditionary adventure, Mr. Hawley said, "He would have ended up Pastor Charles Darwin, creationist."
Ming Zhang, a 22-year-old graduate of M.I.T., went on one of Mr. Hawley's Bhutan trips in 2002. When Mr. Hawley first asked him, Mr. Zhang replied with a question, "Where's Bhutan?" Mr. Hawley explained that the kingdom is high in the Himalayas, bordered by India and Tibet. It is a nation the size of Switzerland, but with a small fraction of the population, nearly all living in rural villages.
Mr. Zhang's family moved to Boston from Wuhan, China, when he was 8 years old. His parents are professors at Harvard University and Boston University, and Mr. Zhang has lived in sizable cities all his life. "Bhutan was just completely what I wasn't used to," he said.
Mr. Zhang recalled looking out the van window while on the two-lane highway that connects Bhutan's larger towns, seeing nothing but a sheer drop, and wondering if going along with Mr. Hawley was such a good idea. But he also recalled the extraordinary natural beauty, and the serenity of a culture of close-knit villages.
Evenings were spent downloading photographs from cameras into notebook computers and assembling a database of 40,000 photos, all sorted by location using global positioning system, or G.P.S., technology. A lot of programming was done on the road. There were no help desks or textbooks to consult, and Internet connections were scarce. "Nothing really matches making technology work in the field," Mr. Zhang said.
The technical challenges of producing the book were many. To make such large pictures print crisply and clearly requires densely packed image files of about two gigabytes, which strain the capacity of today's software and printers. Pushing the limits of every element of the hardware and software technology at once meant constant tweaking and debugging.
Recently, as he tried to revive a crashed printer, Mr. Hawley wondered if the project was folly. "But I've always felt that any interesting endeavor should have a daft quality to it. You ought to aim high."
Mr. Hawley's most impressive achievement in the Bhutan book, according to colleagues, has been in engineering the entire project, not only the technology but other elements as well. He taught Bhutanese children how to take pictures with professional cameras and explained the technology to them. Some of their photographs appear in the book. He came up with the fund-raising idea and rounded up support from several technology companies.
"The true creativity is in marshalling it all, bringing everything together in ways that might never have been dreamed of," said David Salesin, a professor at the University of Washington and a senior researcher at Microsoft.
Mr. Hawley has proved to be an engaging salesman for the Bhutan book. Seed money for the project came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, M.I.T. and Microsoft. Corporate sponsors who contributed equipment, shipping or technical support include Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Amazon, Federal Express, Apple, Kodak, Adobe and Dell.
Mr. Hawley makes the calls for corporate support himself. When he called Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, Mr. Hawley told him the Bhutan project gave him an opportunity to be the world's largest book seller, literally. "Jeff loved it," Mr. Hawley recalled.
Persuading a bookbinder to take on the project took some work as well. Mr. Hawley was fortunate in finding Acme Bookbinding in nearby Charlestown, Mass. Acme is a company with a long history of custom work. When Mr. Hawley first came in, Paul Parisi, Acme's president, recalled, "We looked at it and said, 'Mike, you're crazy.' "
But the more Mr. Parisi thought about it, the more intrigued he became, and Acme took on the job. The binding was an innovative design combining Japanese and European techniques, new materials and hand craftsmanship. Each book takes two people with long arms about two days to assemble.
The challenge lies in ensuring durability in a book of so great a size and weight. "The danger is that the book fights itself," Mr. Parisi said. "The hinges and structure had to be designed so the book finds its own center. It's like a huge, intricate machine."
Will there be a sequel to "Bhutan"? It depends, Mr. Hawley said. "After this," he said, "we may have saturated the market for huge books.
By STEVE LOHR
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