Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in JamaicaA High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Like The Once and Future King and The Secret of Santa Vittoria, A High Wind in Jamaica straddles the disparate worlds of literature and entertainment, but it's darker than either of those other books--somewhat less malevolent than Lord of the Flies maybe, but mordant in a way that Lord of the Flies isn't because of the special skill with which Richard Hughes fixes reality on his imaginative screen. Hughes is a master realist like Christopher Isherwood. He had a whole litter of his own children eventually, but not until after he made this fine study of the mechanics of childhood imagination. Perhaps not being a parent he could play the naturalist even better, could watch the amoral clockworks of that imagination amorally like a naturalist watching a lion tear up a springbok by a baobab tree. The neatest trick is that he sees the children's imaginings and cognitive failings from without so that the narration itself is never for a moment mired in confused imaginings. Dramatic irony galore--we see what the children do not: a real world whose crass indifference to children is readily matched only by the children's tyrannical indifference to reality. A menagerie of animals fills up the book--a half-wild cat hunted by totally wild cats, a monkey with a gangrenous tail, a fussy pig, a goat with a "beard flying like a prophet's," etc.--and the animals seamlessly prefigure what will happen to the children with the subtlety of Ovid, to whom Hughes refers several times, and with the delicious sadism of a Martin Scorsese film.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Second-Highest Heaven (Big Bang Part II)

descriptionDarrel Abel was born in Lost Nation, Iowa in 1911. He taught American literature at Purdue for many years, and at some point, working from the obscurity of Lisbon Falls, Maine, he produced a rather lovely little paper called "Robert Frost's 'Second-Highest Heaven'," which he published in 1980. The paper's title refers to a piece of Frost's prose on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Frost wrote:
Everybody votes in heaven but everybody votes the same way, as in Russia today. It is only in the second-highest heaven that things get parliamentary.
Abel goes on to quote one of Frost's letters, which expresses a similar sentiment:
whatever great thinkers may say against the earth, I notice that no one is anxious to leave it for either Heaven or Hell. Heaven may be better than Hell as reported, but it is not as good as earth.
Frost was an American who knew the pioneer's feeling of diminution before the vast inhuman wilderness, "An emptiness flayed to the very stone," as he describes an abandoned, clear-cut piece of land in his brilliant 1923 poem "The Census-Taker." Like his predecessors Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville, he saw in the American situation a figure of the human situation in the universe itself. And like those former masters of American modernity, Frost refused despair any lasting purchase. They refused despair not because they were plucky and upbeat, but because they saw too deeply to ignore the true proportions between chaos and beauty, emptiness and humanness, in this complex, mysterious world of ours.

As Abel points out, Frost's famous poem "Desert Places" consciously rebuts Blaise Pascal in his terror at the emptiness between the stars. Here is Pascal worrying about space in his Pensées. You've heard of "penis envy" and "castration anxiety"--call this pensée anxiety:
When I consider the short duration of my life, an eternity that stretches behind and before, and the little space which I fill and even see, engulfed in the immensity of spaces I know not and which know not me, I am frightened and astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.... The eternal silence of the infinite spaces--it frightens me. Quoted in "Robert Frost's 'Second-Highest Heaven'" by Darrel Abel, Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 16: Iss. 2, Article 3, 1980

The Big Bang can amplify the terror Pascal describes, which is in the first place not so easily dismissed. Paul Tillich, according to Abel, called such cosmic queasiness modern man's "real vertigo in relation to infinite space." Big Bang astronomy of course implies that those spaces, those desert places are not just infinite but stretching out, and so they're diminishing our physical stature in the cosmos. (To diminished stature, I say, so what? Short people achieve amazing things nowadays. Who cares how big or small we are in relation to the cosmos? Why should an electron care if it's smaller than the atomic nucleus? And would my funny bone feel any better if my elbows were the size of the Horsehead Nebula?) The vertigo is the more horrible thing; the Big Bang theory creates it by explaining so much without successfully delivering us from the painful tautologies with which we began our search for knowledge. It's the intellectual equivalent of whirling around and around.

Infinity and eternity aren't problematic because they're big (and they're not always big--a finite space may be infinitely subdivided), but because they're at once inescapable and nonsensical aspects of the cosmos. Mathematics seems to acknowledge as much since the symbol for infinity, ∞, also means "undefined." (As in 20 divided by zero = ∞.) The universe appears to have begun at a point in time. But how does something come from nothing? What was before? Something else? Some other universe? None of the alternatives appeal to common sense, and so the Big Bang theory pictures a universe whose perfectly comprehensible laws lead to perfectly incomprehensible conundra of origins and endings, limits and infinity. That's how I interpret Tillich's vertigo, and the theme of Frost's poetry--in Abel's words, "man's lostness in space." Not only do we not understand the limits of the universe in time and space, but it seems they are constitutionally inaccessible to understanding. They are non-parameters, they are outside reason and experience, yet reason and experience lead us straight to their door.... This is a miserable and untenable state of affairs.

In the last decades, the mental health field has often and without good reason blurred the traditional medical dividing line between symptom and diagnosis. I would argue that pensée anxiety, Tillich's vertigo, Big Bang-o-phobia, etc., is not a diagnosis. It's not even its own symptom. Rather, it's but one instance of a more commonplace problem I call "under-the-hood nausea." (For a fuller discussion of under-the-hood nausea, here is another blog I wrote on the subject. Under-the-hood nausea, in turn, is but a manifestation of neurosis.)

Science reaches out, by instruments and inferences, into planes of reality that exist on different scales from our own. This is what creates under-the-hood nausea. The Big Bang was named by Fred Hoyle, an important physicist who happened to despise the theory and applied the phrase "Big Bang" in derision. But the theory is perhaps rightly named in the sense that it bashes you over the head with under-the-hood nausea like nothing else. It's looking under the hood of the cosmos, and just as looking inside the body at the guts makes some people feel sick, looking under the hood of the cosmos can fill you with vertiginous questions: What is infinity? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a god? If there is, can I still masturbate? Why are so many cosmologists named George?

Scientists must look at reality on every plane, at every magnification, but if we can't relate our findings to our own scale, our own plane, then the work of comprehension isn't done. If we can't interpret and appreciate our knowledge in human terms, then the science may have the effect of urging us on in our despair--despair which belongs to our own homely little world of birth and death and not to the vacuous spaces between the stars. Help me, Mr. Frost:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Wittgenstein was a very fine doctor for treating sickening cosmic questions. He suggested that such questions must have bad syntax--just like the meaningless proposition twenty divided by zero. If you look out into the cosmos and feel despair, remind yourself that despair is 100% human. If our understanding of physics is too incomplete right now to relate the cosmic to the quantum to the human scale of affairs, our psyches do it for us in a crude way--with despair. Yet the more we look, the more order we see in the universe. In that sense, the universe appears to be a more and more hospitable place the more we learn about it--a more human place, since humanity and life are founded on a principle of order and the development of more of it.

Fred Hoyle, the Big Bang skeptic, discovered how heavy elements are forged in the furnaces of the stars and he did it by an anthropic inference: we exist; we're made of carbon; therefore nucleosynthesis of carbon must occur; therefore stars must have a way of doing it; therefore certain isotopes of helium and beryllium must react quickly to form an excited conformation of carbon-12. He was right. Multiple generations of stars must refine lighter elements in their breasts to make heavier ones like carbon. The stars are our mothers and fathers. The universe has music in it. It has despair in it. But it's all ours.

Like the joke says:
There was a costume party where everybody was instructed to dress as an emotion. The party hosts greeted the first guest, who was dressed from head to toe in red, and asked him, "What emotion are you supposed to be?" He said, "Rage." The next guest was dressed all in green--green tights, green leotard, a green hat. When they asked what emotion she was supposed to be, she said, "I'm envy." Then a guy came to the door completely naked, with a pear stuck on the end of his penis. The hosts asked, "What emotion are you?" He said, "I'm fuckin' despair."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Begin the Cosmic Beguine (Big Bang Part I)

Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh

It generally takes a child no more than three or four ingenuous questions to reach a humbling horizon beyond which no intellect, whether adult or child or Stephen Hawking, has passed: the question of how the universe began. Whatever we learn about the past, the answer to the next question--what came before that--rears up on the horizon, ever out of reach. I used to lie in bed as a child and imagine infinity until my head hurt.

We do know more than ever before, however, and some of that knowledge has arrived within my own lifetime. Books really do help, especially when written by a science writer par excellence like Simon Singh, who sets out to teach you the subject for real. Singh doesn't water everything down to the point where it makes no sense. He trusts his readers' intelligence and their natural childlike curiosity, and he has the writerly skill to make the real science into a fascinating story--a story which begins not with a bang but a person--Einstein.

Einstein's theory of relativity predicts that matter causes the space of the universe to contract or expand--a dynamic notion of space that cannot be tested by everyday experience, but can be (and has been) tested by data collected from telescopes. Around 1920, Jewish-Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann applied Einstein's equations to cosmology in order to predict what was happening to the size of the whole universe; he predicted it was expanding. Georges Lemaître (a physicist who was also a Catholic priest, pictured next to Einstein in his white collar!) descriptiondid the same and deduced that if the universe has expanded, it must once have been compact. The idea was not that the matter of the universe exploded like shrapnel from a bomb (one reason "Big Bang" is an imperfect name), but rather that the empty space of the universe itself was once compact and ever since has been stretching out like silly putty.

The general theory of relativity is evidently very difficult to translate into plain English, and I don't understand it any further than physicist John Wheeler's famous statement that "Matter tells space how to curve, and curved space tells matter how to move." (It also tells light how to move. I'd like to see if it could get my kids to put their shoes on.) I do know this: whereas matter can't move through space faster than light, space itself can change size faster than the speed of light. It's often said that light from billions of light years away is showing us something billions of years in the past; light from afar is very old; that's putatively because the light has been traveling for billions of years to get to us. I never understood how this could be, since I assumed that distant galaxies must have taken billions of light years to get so far away from our common Big Bang point of origin in the first place. Singh does not address this particular question, but other sources confirm that the universe seems to have expanded much faster than light in the beginning; I presume that's how the infant universe could have blown out to a size billions of light-years across in less than billions of years, and how light from 14 billion light years away therefore could show us baby pictures of the universe. At any rate, Edwin Hubble's observations of the skies, made on freezing nights through a giant telescope in Pasadena, and his analyses of observed Doppler shifts of spectra emitted by familiar elements like helium in distant stars, confirmed that the universe is indeed expanding, with the speed of expansion apparently increasing at farther distances out.

More support for the idea of the Big Bang came from particle physics. Russian refugee George Gamow concluded that the relative abundances of elements in the universe (90% hydrogen, 10% helium, trace amounts of heavier elements, as determined by spectroscopy on the heavens) could best be explained if the universe's matter was once a condensed ball of plasma hotter and more pressurized than that inside stars--he called this universal primordium of subatomic particles ylem. Gamow's young collaborator Ralph Alpher made mathematical models of the primordial universe; they showed that the early universe would have had the right conditions for the right length of time to support "nucleosynthesis" of 10% of the loose protons into helium. Then, with colleague Robert Hermann, Alpher theorized that the early universe should have cooled from plasma to gas 300,000 years after creation, an event called "recombination" (because it was now cool enough for electrons to "recombine" with atomic nuclei instead of flying all over the place? but were they ever combined before that?); they predicted that recombination should have allowed the early universe to radiate light instead of merely scattering it and the light should still be flying through space in every direction and that the expansion of the universe should by now have stretched the wavelength of the extant light of recombination to the point where it would be in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum--the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB radiation).

At this point the Nobel committee was paying serious attention to the Big Bang theory. In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who worked for Bell Labs in New Jersey, confirmed the existence of the CMB radiation with a radio telescope and later won the Nobel prize. Finally, George Smoot got NASA to launch a satellite with a radiometer on it so that he could look for miniscule variations in the CMB radiation. These would reflect the existence of condensates of matter in the early universe--the precursors to today's stars and galaxies; NASA launched it in 1989, the radiometer detected it, Smoot too won a Nobel prize for it. I am pretty sure that the variations in the CMB radiation do not explain why half my noodles are hot and half are cold when I reheat a bowl of pasta. Nonetheless, I blame the Big Bang. The end of the story of how we understand the beginning.

There are so many wonderfully human aspects to this history of an idea. The history of astronomy as Singh tells it is a history of passionate, suffering dreamers, of political refugees converging on England and America where they could think in peace. 20th century physics is also a history of the Jews, whose numbers in the Big Bang story far exceed those of helium in the stars (Einstein, Friedmann, Alpher, Hermann, and Penzias are among the Jewish free thinkers who built this progressive theory). The Big Bang is both an elucidation and a revelation of mysteries and cosmic order. Why then, does it hold such potential to make your head hurt and your soul ache with a sense of the empty, senseless, inhumanity of the universe? I feel this anxiety, yet I don't trust it. See Part II.

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