FOR most of my adult existence the only data that have mattered when buying new clothes are the dimensions for "neck/arm" and for "waist/inseam." These dimensions, 151/2/33 and 34/30, by now possess an almost sacral quality -- they are the Avogadro's Number and the Planck's (More or Less) Constant of my sartorial life, arrived at with technology no more sophisticated than a tailor's fabric measure.
It seems so quaint now, in an age of whole-body-scanning systems. A prototype of such a system was unveiled a few years ago by the Computerized Anthropometric Research and Design Laboratory, a division of the U.S. Air Force, which hopes to create better-fitting uniforms and protective equipment. The Air Force system uses laser beams to scan as many as two million body-surface reference points. The transfer of such technology to the civilian sector may have already begun. A swimsuit maker called Second Skin uses a scanner to construct personalized beachwear based on "up to 28 different vital body statistics." Levi Strauss & Co. has installed in many stores what it calls the Original Spin Program; computerized morphological data are transmitted to a team of cutters and stitchers, who within a few days send back an individualized garment -- "jeans that scream 'Yes,'" in the words of Levi Strauss. The contours of the human form will soon be susceptible in every particular to remote probes and supple algorithms, down to the last hollow and hump, the last ripple and ridge.
"The rules that describe nature seem to be mathematical," the physicist Richard Feynman pointed out in a famous series of lectures some decades ago. Indeed, Feynman went on, mathematical character amounts to "a kind of miracle." Feynman gave the example of gravity, whose force varies according to the inverse square of the distance between two bodies. The quest for the underlying mathematics of the physical universe has been much publicized, and has sometimes led into outlandish territory. But it is the parallel quest for the underlying mathematics of ordinary experience that has truly become pervasive in our lives.