One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

Dark matter and dark energy are more directly motivated by observations of the real world. Dark matter is apparently needed to account for the gravitational effects that seem to come from parts of space where no ordinary matter is visible, or not enough to explain the tug. For example, rotating galaxies seem to have some additional source of gravitational attraction, beyond the visible stars and gas, that stops them from flying apart. The “lensing” effect where distant astrophysical objects get distorted by the gravitational warping of spacetime also seems to demand this invisible form of matter. But dark matter does not exist in the usual sense, in that it has not been seen and there are no theories that can convincingly explain or demand its existence. Dark energy too is a kind of “stuff” required to explain the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, discovered by astronomers observing far-away objects in the mid-1990s. But it is just a name for a puzzle, without any direct detection.

It seems quite possible that dark energy, and perhaps dark matter too, will turn out to be like Crookes’ “dark space” and “radiant energy”: not exactly stuff, but symptoms of some hitherto unknown physical principle. These connections were exquisitely intuited by Philip Pullman in theHis Dark Materials trilogy, where (the title alone gives a clue) a mysterious substance called Dust is an amalgam of dark matter and Barrett’s quasi-sentient psychomeres, given a spiritual interpretation by the scientist-priests of Pullman’s alternative steampunk Oxford University who sense its presence using instruments evidently based on Crookes’ light mill.

Scientists, of course, are not just making things up, while leaning on the convenience of supposed invisibility. They are using dark matter and dark energy, and (if one is charitable) quantum many-worlds and branes, and other imperceptible and hypothetical realms, to perform an essential task: to plug gaps in their knowledge with notions they can grasp.

From Nautilus, a great publication for all the obvious reasons. This article was perfect. I’d definitely recommend it. If only I could write half as well. 

The Allure of the Map

The Allure of the Map

I enjoy Borges a lot. He gets a reference.

Some days I wake up from a dream where I’m Borges but then, as I get started on my day, I realize I am in one of his books. At that point it becomes a nightmare. I never woke up but just woke up into another dream. It’s almost as if I’m trying to make a dream as intricate and confusing but as beautifully balanced as Borges was.

I wish I could explain it better but I thought I’d share.

Another Look at Albert Camus

Another Look at Albert Camus

The New Republic has taken another look at French philosopher, writer and all-around maestro of the literary arts. One of his books has been recently translated into English, and since everyone who reads the New Republic is at least cordially acquainted with the guy I suppose the staff decided that there was no time like the present to chat about him. Book chat is a marvelous thing.

I give the article props for finally tracking down, in the book, and relating to the readers Camus at his most quotable.

What Camus actually said, in any case, was sharp enough. He told the students: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

I hope you enjoy the read.

Meta is Death to Memory

“Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember,” James Young writes. I believe him. I believe that we live in a crisis of criticism because we have built up these great ideas, theories and conceptions about the world without truly reconciling ourselves to our past. In fact, many of these grand ideas are an effort to forget the past for very temporary, but contemporary, purposes. As a result, even though the past is the soil from where these ideas and frameworks have come from the soil is drifting away. To jump unapologetically and, arguably, incongruously to another metaphor these ideas are citadels of the mind. Like citadels today they are simply elaborate memorials of an age that, we assume incorrectly, has no meaning to us now. We have let remembrance become a thing of the past rather than a legitimate reminder of it.

I look at what some call political correctness. Tony Judt has a great experience in the matter.

“In Nice today, for example, the main shopping street has been relabeled with a plaque reading “Avengueda Jouan Medecin. Consou de Nissa 1928-1965.” This is a politically correct attempt, in the French context, to remind passerby that the local inhabitants once spoke an Italianate Provencal patois and to invoke on behalf of the city’s distinctive identity the memory of that language. But Jean Medecin, the mayor of Nice between 1928 and 1965, had no particular interest in local dialects or customs, did not use the old Nicois form of his name or title, and was as French, and French-speaking, as they come–as were most of his constituents in his day. This one instance can stand for many where a false past had been substituted for the real one for very present-minded reasons; here, at least, the historian can help set memory back on its feet.”

I look into my own life and I experience instances that are casual, unremarkable and–with those two adjectives in mind–horrifyingly banal. I live, for a few months longer at any rate, near a reservation for Native Americans. In an interesting pique of disagreeableness they have begun an elaborate process of identifying ‘burial grounds’ near and around their reservation. Knowledgeable opinion is fragmented on the why. Some believe it is to abrogate or somehow encourage the ending of leases the tribe undertook many years ago. Others believe it is an attempt to somehow limit the ability of the local and state government to nix potential building plans. If it is decided that the burrowing owl or fringe-toed lizard can be displaced on account of a proper homage to the dead then the principle behind preventing development of the land is moot. It’s a much shorter jump from cemetery to, say, a parking garage than from an endangered species’ habitat.

The point being, the idea behind any ‘burial ground’ for these particular Native Americans is nonsense. They were nomads, historically, and like most Californian Indians they had no real permanent locations (or even seasonal ones). In a very real sense, specially if we have an eye on our government’s treatment of these tribes, all of California is an ‘Indian burial ground.’ Time will tell what happens and, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, so it goes. Political correctness in the American context bits a little bit further into the core of American ‘authenticity.’

But what I pull from it is not, perhaps, morality being subsumed to economic efficacy. The issue I have is how so many have let their monumental conceptions about the world erase so many details about this particular event so it can continue to fit their preconceptions. The burial grounds are there, it is argued, because to believe otherwise would be an insult to Native American culture. Tangible evidence and the details of the situation ride shotgun to ‘more important’ concerns. To consider anything else would be a form, another instance in a long lineage of tragedies, of cultural imperialism just like, well, pick your example. It is an autofill statement.

I find myself doing the same thing. I have a rule, a (capital-B) Belief. It was made, at one point, out of the past. Past decisions, experiences and thoughts provided this Belief. Those past accidents, for that’s what they were, are now forgotten because by making my rule, my monument, I have “divested” myself from “the obligation to remember.” I have my reasons. They may not be good ones, or they may be good ones. I have no idea. Too often, and I’m not alone in this, the details of ‘the now’ have ceased to matter because they rely on a past that I no longer remember or feel a compulsion to learn about. The best sort of facts, the inconvinient ones, are rubbed out of existence.

Sometimes this dynamic  can prove Arendt’s quip that “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” To evaluate the statement’s true value take a look at the ultimate holders of all the answers: midcentury progressives, especially those who had taken ahold of communism as a legitimate explanation of the world’s functions. As Sartre aptly summarized, Marxism was “an instrument that made it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.” Or, perhaps more simply, the ironically titled book by former communist Leszek Kolakowski ‘My Correct Views on Everything.’ It is an autobiographical composite of his life and intellectual views with an added emphasis on the unfalseability of anything he said, wrote or believed as long as it was properly imbued with the absoluteness of Marxist orthodoxy. What strikes me and other readers is how dramatically reality adapted to fit the opinion.

Since we’re on the subject, I’d recommend the Commissar Vanishes by David King. It is the logical conclusion of this sort of ‘meta’ or theoretical thinking taken to the extreme.

With only the slightest rearranging can’t you see, dear reader, these criticisms redirected to our own modern times? It’s fascinating but also instructive. Their tone was not disciplinarian but it would be helpful if they adopted such a tone. Events cannot be shoehorned to fit our conceptions about class, gender or politics. People certainly cannot. Too often they are, just take a peak at Jezebel. It’s tragic but it is avoidable. If there is anything that I hope, personally, that I can do it is to hold myself to this simple standard: approach every situation exactly like it should be, approach it uniquely.