In the news, water discovered on Earth’s moon: Not so much water apparently though that NASA will start shaping surfboards for its astronauts; nor is discovered quite right – confirmed or proven more precise. Meantime, of course, what with someone always turning up the global warming thermostat in the house, we’ll soon be wanting to bring some of that moon water down to Earth. And where there’s water, there could be also be tomatoes. And where there’s tomatoes, there could also be salsa. Now, a salsa party on the moon – countdown! And where there’s water, there’s sound, so the previously assumed to be silent moon, if you put your ear to the crater, just might produce some good vibes after all; and what’s a salsa party without music?
It sometimes seems clear if there is an afterlife it does not interfere with present life. But what is present? The light from our sun is already a little over eight seconds old. We sunbathe in the past, confident in a present we never quite seem to fully inhabit (physics explains it’s perfectly possible to split infinitives). Where then do we go? Maybe time is a question of physics, maybe of metaphysics – the things that may come after the physics.
The dead seem an extremely polite bunch. They do not intrude. Looking for them is like searching for aliens. We may feel their presence, approach them with the telescope of faith, but if they exist, somewhere-somehow, that life lies far far beyond the present five senses. To prove an afterlife, if we want to believe in ghosts and such, we must create a sense beyond our given five.
William Blake noticed angels out and about. Rilke claimed to have seen one. What is it about poets that make them easy prey for such notions? Wouldn’t it be a bit frightful if the first aliens the astronomers discover turn out to be previous earthlings? The problem with communicating with the dead may simply be the length of time their message takes to reach us. By the time the first message from the first dead reaches Earth, we may all be gone. What would the message say? Trick or Treat?
I take no issue with the dead. Nor am I looking forward to meeting any aliens. Let them keep their distance. My problem seems to be sugar: to wit, candy – the Halloween tradition (in these parts).
This year, instead of passing out candy, I propose to hand out poems. Short poems printed on three by five cards, maybe with a cartoon or drawing on one side of the card. I’ll drop a poem card into every little critter’s Halloween basket. No candy. No sugar.
But when I mentioned the idea to Susan, she said, “We’ll get our house egged for sure.”
“You think? With the cost of dairy these days?”
“And the parents will accuse you of poisoning their kids with poetry. Besides, Halloween cards are nothing new. And poetry, while sugar free, is still very high in carbs and calories, not to mention saturated and trans fats.”
So much for my proposal. I guess we’re sticking with candy.
The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.
Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.
Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.
One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.
Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.
For years, science was an argument that believed nothing on faith. These days, anything might be believed, as long as adequate funding materializes. Matthew Arnold’s receding “Sea of Faith” may be replenished with research dollars. What the sea might be replenished with is up in the air, and anyone’s guess.
In “Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?,” Adam Gopnik (30 Nov New Yorker) explains: “The seemingly neutral order of the natural world becomes the sounding board for every passionate feeling the physicist possesses.” The subject is non-locality, or locality, depending on your point of view: the idea that we might eschew working at home and go into the office but without a commute. Gopnik is reviewing George Musser’s “Spooky Action at a Distance.” “One of Musser’s themes,” Gopnik says, “is that the boundary between inexplicable-seeming magical actions and explicable physical phenomena is a fuzzy one.” Gopnik looks at two other books, David Wootton’s “The Invention of Science,” and Thomas Levenson’s “The Hunt for Vulcan,” and concludes that scientists who suggest nature is wilder than we ever imagined “widen our respect for what we might be capable of imagining.”
Imagining extreme life made possible by large doses of alien DNA, for example, such as the recent genome sequencing of the tardigrade makes apparent. Or of imagining a thinking both qualitatively and quantitatively different than Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind’s facts based knowledge. In a delightful essay test-like answer, Mary Midgley said, “The Enlightenment has done a magnificent job of increasing our knowledge. The further job – which its original prophets glimpsed very clearly – of putting that knowledge in its wider context hasn’t been done so well. It is not a job for science but for wisdom. It needs more work” (“You may now turn over your papers,” 24 Sep 2010, Guardian). If you doubt that it needs more work or that funding must be involved, consider this, from Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Does the Scientific Method Need Revision?”: “I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?” Not that I’m a fan of string theory. As I said in a prior post, if Christo were a physicist, he would have enough string theory to wrap the universe. Beauty and elegance point to metaphor; what does physics point to? Without some extra-dose of alien DNA, it seems we’re trapped in the human.
Imagining more work for the imagination is the lure of Philippa Rees’s erudite tome, “Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God.” “Creation has paid a high price for science’s limited certainties,” Rees says in her Introduction. Like Mary Midgley, Rees challenges Dawkins, who, Rees surmises, would call her work “bad poetry,” where metaphor is the culprit. And the Gradgrind school of physicists like Hossenfelder might also ask metaphor to leave the room. Can metaphor be tested? Is beauty falsifiable?
The electronic copy of “Involution” is 947 pages, cover to cover, including copious notes, scholarly references, introduction, appendix, and afterword that bookend nine long cantos of free verse. If you’re looking for the gift that keeps on giving for someone who likes to read, consider P. A. Rees’s “Involution.” The paperback copy is only 444 pages (CollaborArt Books, 4 Jul 2013), but with the many references and notes, the e-copy might be a better choice because it’s efficient and effective to navigate.
A synopsis of “Involution,” or a paraphrase of its argument, for purposes of this blog post, might best be substituted with Rees’s opening quote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (attributed to Père Teilhard de Chardin). The stylistic treatment of such themes often results in alternatives to standard forms of non-fiction. This is true of McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”; of Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body”; and of much of Joseph Campbell’s work; and of Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space.” These are works replete with references, written in a mosaic form, non-lineal. Their form challenges the status quo as much as their content. The poetry is not what makes “Involution” difficult. Involution’s poetry is not a post-modern puzzle. In many places we find a piece of the mosaic that alone is worth the price of entry:
“It was all I had to bring
For words must pull against the grain
Shackled to their past
Employed in other houses, poorly trained…
Blacking scuttles, shining brass…
All marred like aprons with old stains
Or rigid in a tail and bow.
Unable to use a common tongue…”
But “Involution” is not an easy read. The seemingly protean nature of its narrator, moving in and out of italics; the mosaic history of science where each new discovery does little to complete the mosaic; the ambiguity of both protagonist and antagonist; the encyclopedic setting; the essential mystical nature of poetry; the science specialties – these all point to a work that is not meant simply to be read but to be lived with. At the same time, the book is carefully constructed, the layout accessible, the erudition softened in accessible notes and explanations. I remain perplexed by most of the figures, but they are helpful in the sense of being contributions to a new language form. I was initially a bit put off by the title, feeling no particular need or want for any kind of reconciliation, too cynical, I guess, but the title is true to the content; still, it gives little clue to the enjoyment of the reading experience.
Sometimes, books are discovered by an unintended audience. How we say something is every bit as important as what we say, maybe more important. And it takes a staunch realist to speak to every audience in the same voice. Likewise, we should read difficult books. I’ve been working on Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” forever, and he cunningly made it a circle, so I’ll never be able to finish it. The occasion of reading is also important, as important as the occasion of writing. The occasion of “Involution” may be now for both Philippa Rees and her reader: “From whence comes this recognition of beauty, economy, and elegance if not from our internal experience of being part of it?” (“Involution,” e-copy, p. 492).