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Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking Gives the Definitive Answer to the Eternal Question

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.

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Do You See What I See? A Poetic Vintage Art-Science Primer on the Building Blocks of the Perceptual World

A lovely illustrated serenade to a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty.”

Do You See What I See? A Poetic Vintage Art-Science Primer on the Building Blocks of the Perceptual World

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe reflected in the spring of her visionary career. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras — another artist of uncommon vision — wrote half a century later as she considered the essence of life in the winter of hers. And yet we move through the seasons of our lives missing the vast majority of what surrounds us. How, then, do we master the art of seeing — that elementary existential skill that furnishes our primary means of apprehending and befriending the world?

Partway in time between O’Keeffe and Duras, a lovely answer comes from the imaginative and prolific mid-century children’s book author and artist (and, later, Peabody-winning documentary journalist) Helen Borten in her 1959 picture-book Do You See What I See? (public library) — a poetic primer on the building blocks of the perceptual world: line, shape, and color.

Although the foundations of art rest upon these elements, Borten also shines a sidewise gleam at the foundations of science. In depicting a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty,” she suggests not only aesthetic beauty but mathematical beauty. There is a Euclidean splendor to her bold illustrations, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques, and her lyrical words. “Bend a line far enough,” she tells the reader, “it becomes a circle.”

Up and down lines pull me up, up, up with them, until I feel as tall as a steeple and as taut as a stretched rubber band. I think of lofty things — giant redwood trees a lighthouse rising above the sea, a rocket soaring high into the sky, noble kings in flowing robes.

At the heart of the book is a primer not only on what and how to see, but also on what and how to be. Two centuries after William Blake asserted that “as a man is, so he sees,” Borten invites the young reader to become the sort of person who sees the world with uncynical eyes of wonder and generous curiosity.

I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy.

Do you see what I see?

Couple Do You See What I See? with Borten’s 1968 gem The Jungle, which she created after becoming one of the first women to explore the wilderness of Guatemala, then revisit Ann Rand’s lovely geometry-driven concept book about how the imagination works from the same era. For a grownup counterpart, savor cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s magnificent On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — a revelatory look at what we fail to see just by being ourselves and how we can lift the habitual blinders of our perception.

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A Fuller Picture of Human Personality: Iris Murdoch on How Art Helps Us Reimagine Freedom, Moral Life, and Our Inner Worlds

“The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself… We need a new vocabulary of attention.”

A Fuller Picture of Human Personality: Iris Murdoch on How Art Helps Us Reimagine Freedom, Moral Life, and Our Inner Worlds

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?

That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:

We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

[…]

This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:

For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.

[…]

Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.

She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:

We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.

We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.

Solitary. Photograph by Maria Popova.

Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:

The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

[…]

The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:

We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:

Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:

I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.

[…]

Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.

In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.

Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.

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The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

“It is this, and the existence of limits.”

The Universe in Verse: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander Reads “Explaining Relativity” by Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson

When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.

But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.

EXPLAINING RELATIVITY
by Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

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