My brother sent me a subscription to the British magazine New Scientist last Christmas. I love it. It arrives once a week and sits, like a center piece, in the middle of the kitchen table. Everyone in the family takes turns reading it, each finding, at different times during the week—over coffee and toast, before soccer practice, while the spaghetti sauce simmers—bits of articles that are so awesome we are compelled to read them aloud to one another.
Oh my god, one of us will say, you have to hear this.
Over the past year conversations at the kitchen table have included the plight of the very versatile, yet genetically challenged banana; the implications of the epaulette shark’s ability to rise, like Lazarus, seemingly from death; the possible global value of jojoba oil, and, most spectacularly, a phantom menace that has the potential, as the headline read, to rip the cosmos apart. I collected this particular issue from my mailbox the week before U.S and British forces declared war on Iraq. It turns out that in the month prior to the war, as thousands around the world demonstrated, physicists were grappling with revolutionary new information. The first results of the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) were released and its potential implications were, well, explosive.
Stand by for a nightmare end to the Universe—the article began—a runaway expansion so violent that galaxies, planets and even atomic nuclei are literally ripped apart.
The initial profile of our universe, according to MAP, looks like this :
Age: 13.7 billion years (or roughly 3 times the age of the earth)
Age when first light appeared: 200 million years ago
4% ordinary matter
23%dark matter, nature unknown
73% dark energy, nature unknown
Hubble constant (the expansion rate of the universe):
My partner Simon and I became avid Star Trek watchers during the time I was pregnant with our son. After dinner, we snuggled up in a big wicker chair, a spot just big enough for both of us and my belly, and turned on the TV. Space, the intro began, the final frontier. Simon would speak along with the resonant voice of Jean Luc Picard. Space, he’d say, bigger than a breadbox. I enjoyed the show but my favourite part was always Simon’s improvised over-dub.
Space……bigger than the gap in your little sister’s two front teeth.
Space….right after spa in the dictionary
Sometimes he leaned towards my tummy, my extroverted belly button acting as a kind of microphone.
Space…he’d say, loud enough for unborn Eli to hear, it lacks a reliable transit system.
The fourth member of our household, a goofy black dog, was named by Eli. We were reading Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which takes place over a Thanksgiving weekend. During dinner the family receives a phone call from the President informing them that the world is under dire threat. A mad dictator from an obscure nation is threatening to deploy nuclear weapons. The main characters use time travel and mental telepathy to alter the fabric of history and, in doing so, avert the global catastrophe. They are helped in their mission by a stray dog who appears unexpectedly during the long dark night. They call her Ananda.
“It’s Sanskrit,” Charles Wallace explains, “[meaning the] joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.”
“When we get our puppy,” Eli interrupted my reading, “I want to call her Ananda.”
Ananda was born on September 10th 2001, a date which has always been significant to Eli.
“It’s a hopeful thing,” he says.
Much of what I read in New Scientist I don’t really understand. For example, I don’t know how to understand that space is flat. It seems incomprehensibly strange and I feel what it must have been like, in times long past, to newly learn the earth was round. But….but…but.., I stutter, the universe may be flat but it is not just flat. Not if there are wormholes, and parallel or alternate universes, not if existence is multi-dimensional, time non-linear. Wormholes, parallel universes, an eternally present moment—to some degree these are fantastical concepts I can entertain, at least metaphorically, if not through an equation or a geometric diagram. But…flat? I’m not sure what to do with a thought like that.
I open the pages of my rather thin magazine and suddenly I am transported, a child who has been told to go outside and play. I step into a back yard that has been un-fenced and the world unfolds around me, vast and messy: flat, peaked, blobbed, swirled, swollen, bubbled, pocketed. Unimaginably large. Unimaginably unimaginable.
I did not enjoy feeling like a child the week that U.S and British troops moved into Iraq, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. It tailed me through town, as I filled my car with gas, as I picked up bulk bags of all-natural lamb, rice and veggie dry dog food, when I stopped at the grocery store to pick up ice cream. The week before I had experimented with a ‘compound’ flavour of ice cream and it had caused ripples, and not the good, butterscotchy kind.
“Bring home some vanilla ice cream,” Simon had said. “Make me feel like I have a home again.” After securing two litres of Breyers All Natural Light Vanilla I somehow managed to fill my cart with things I didn’t even know I needed: 4 packages of Minute Maid orange juice drinking boxes (on special), a pineapple (also on special), peanut butter (you can never have too many jars). And more: fold-over sandwich bags, Dad’s chocolate chip cookies, pre-made hummus, a box of instant oatmeal. Standing in line, staring at my full basket of questionable necessities, I felt kind of sick. Spoiled. “The war on Iraq,” a TV news item from the night before had begun, “wages war on American waistlines.” People, suffering from war time anxiety, were soothing their stress with excessive amounts of fast food. Ahead of me in line, two guys, around my age, talked in excited, drippy tones about the latest U.S military gear.
“I know it’s not cool,” one said, “but, fuck, watching the fighting at Umm Qasr was like watching the best video game ever.”
At home I abandoned my groceries and wandered into my overgrown garden. In the car, the ice cream melted. I was distracted by the witch hazel. It had been a damp, gray winter and this bright yellow bloom was an unexpected gift. In and out of the fringed petals flitted a hummingbird, the first of the season. It was a sharp sliver of brown, this hummingbird, a tiny racing heart with wings. I sat by the witch hazel a long time watching the buzz and blur of colour come and go. I was tired of not knowing what to do. I wanted to grow-up.
It is forgivable that, in the aftermath of MAP’s findings, scientists were either a little shrill, or totally silent. MAP confirmed some of the most speculative of speculations. Designed to measure the cosmic microwave background, MAP now provides a clear record of the history of our universe. The way I understand it, it’s kind of like carbon dating a dinosaur bone, but on a lot bigger scale.
Scientists have known for roughly the past 70 years that the universe appears to be expanding, but, with a kind of arrogant anthropomorphism, it was assumed that, like human life, the expansion rate would eventually peter out. MAP findings suggest otherwise. Still, it seems to me that sensational concern over increased expansion is kind of a misplaced anxiety, a galactic red herring. (I mean, c’mon guys, why get your panties in a twist over a “Big Rip” scenario that could play out as soon as 22 billion years from now.) No, the thing that is really upsetting the physicists, as far as I can figure, is that after all their theories—general, special, quantum, string—it turns out that only 4% of the universe is know-able, ordinary matter. Only 4% is the stuff that makes up planets and super novas, car keys, milk-shakes, beaks, bones, tidal waves, meteors and moth wings. The rest—96%—is a mystery.
I didn’t know what to do. What do you do when you feel something to be so profoundly wrong and yet you have so little power to affect it? What do you do when morality and reason flat-lines at the highest levels of power and influence?
In January 2000 George W Bush stood before an audience at the Iowa Western Community college and, in language that eerily pre-dated the rhetorical flourishes of the War on Terror, had this to say:
When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not sure who they are. But we know they’re there.
This was not the speech of a studied and thoughtful politician. This, to me, was Big Brother engaging in some horrific form of child’s play. Could the devastation that war entails really be as arbitrary, as entertaining, as the ultimate millennial game of cops and robbers? The definitive cinematic version of cowboys and Indians? The best fucking video game? And if that idea scares you, or sickens you, what do you do? What do you do with thoughts like these?
I didn’t know what to do but to start with the details: small, banal, daily, domestic, personal. So. The next week I bought a bulk bag of organic oatmeal and woke up fifteen minutes earlier to make it for breakfast. I called my best childhood friend and told her I loved her and that I didn’t want to maintain my side of the argument—old as brothers and sisters—that lay between us. I took a day off to take Eli to a track and field meet. Afterwards, instead of rushing back to work, we bought milkshakes and went to the beach. I read a story out loud from the New Scientist about the discovery of a star called HE0107-5240I which, at 13.5 billion years old, shared its infancy with the universe. I tried to be a better, less distracted parent. Simon and I had long discussions about how compelling the phrase ‘you’ll do it because I told you so’ was when parenting a pre-pubescent boy. We talked strategies; we talked conflict-resolution. I avoided TV and newspapers because it was there, through daily repetition, that the unthinkable was being transformed into the acceptably normal. I visited ZNET (The Spirit of Resistance Lives) for Iraqi conflict updates. I kept a journal of information I could reliably consider facts:
March 29th Cluster bombs explode, biblical in their wrath, and scatter bomblets over a wide radius. The sky rains grenades. A single cluster bomb saturates an area the size of football field with sharp, flying steel. At least 5% of the bomblets, often far more, don’t explode, but live on as landmines. Human Rights Watch says that approximately 4,000 civilians were killed by unexploded cluster bomblets after the ’91 Gulf War. Presently, deaths and injuries sustained by children from unexploded cluster bombs are approximated to be around a 1000 a month.
Baby steps. I felt as if I had reached some kind of developmental plateau, one defined by my own limitations, my own irrelevance. It was hard, and it hurt, to read or see or think too much on the subject. And it wasn’t just me. People were soon tired of talking about it. Conversations aggressively veered away from the topic. It wasn’t cool to belabour the point. “NBC moves War”, began a satirical headline in the online magazine The Onion, “to Thursday, after Friends.” No weapons of mass destruction were found. The language of war, rife with bulky, over-fed acronyms, split its seams. Semantic distinctions blurred in translation. A ‘defensive line’ was both defensive and offensive, depending on which side of the line you stood. A liberator looked an awful lot like an invader, depending on which side of the line you stood. Friendly fire was not friendly at all. The predictably disastrous side effects of war upon an already devastated country’s infrastructure and ecology occurred, continued to occur. May 1st came and went. The war was over but, like the over 300 000 rounds of uranium shells leaching into the soil and water of the Iraqi landscape, I found the ideas it generated, whether we talked about them or not, still continued to sicken.
Alongside my journal entries I compulsively collected the articles in the New Scientist that pertained to dark matter and dark energy. It was perversely gratifying to see how these unknown forces seemed to echo, on a cosmic level, both current U.S foreign policies and, more generally, the aims of all terrorist activity. The fact that the U.S represents 4% of the world’s population—the same percentage of mass that constitutes the knowable universe—seemed to be a coincidence pregnant with possibility, albeit possibilities I could never logically unravel. The physicist’s initial choice of nomenclature, (cold dark matter, repulsive dark energy), with all its social and metaphorical baggage, translated, at the time, into a literal representation of how I felt. Small and insignificant. Helpless against larger and unknown forces.
Often, I miss the ecstatic and anarchic despair of my adolescence, (soundtrack by Peggy Lee and Patti Smith, and a little Neil Young, for when the boys came around). Then, my anger and confusion had been visceral and immediate, uncompromising. Stylistically pleasing. I would never have worn track pants out the door, nor Gore-Tex. There had been both tragic glamour and scrappy indifference in the act of lighting a cigarette. I always wore funky, revolutionary shoes.
I find myself cringing a little at the wholesome earnestness of my ‘mature’ personal solutions to global crisis: oatmeal recipes and parenting tips, quotes that run along the predictable lines of ‘seize the day’ or ‘take nothing for granted’.
But… I can no longer do apocalyptic joy any more than I can sleep in until two in the afternoon. I have a child. And as often as I feel like a kid (bewildered, bumfuzzled, lost at the mall), I am also a parent.
Spring dressed itself up into summer. In our front yard the cherry tree bloomed, the fruit ripened. It was a hot summer and the cherries ripened quickly, faster than we could pick them, and the fruit fermented in the uppermost branches. The birds congregated like college students and threw an all-day and all-night party, their cries becoming more lucid and slippery. Eli and I left shallow dishes of water, (not deep enough to pass out and drown in), around the yard so the soused birds didn’t dehydrate. Ananda kept an eye out for cats on the prowl.
After a while the headlines became less shrill. The scientists started outlining the details they could reliably consider to be facts. Cold dark matter, aka WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), or 23% of the universe, has proven, to the physicists who would like to ascribe singular and consistent characteristics, remarkably unpredictable. What is known of the nature of repulsive dark energy, aka the cosmological constant, or 73% of the universe, is paradoxical: the cosmological constant would appear to be the property of nothingness, the energy of empty space. The fact that a cosmological constant has now been proven to exist stands as a challenge to hundreds of years of thought about the ‘fixed’ laws of nature. Our entire paradigm of human life—and its place in space—needs to be re-thought.
The details of our universe just got a whole lot messier. Messy, I’d like to think, in the good way that kitchens can be. If our natural laws aren’t fixed, then, really, anything is possible. It seems we—parents, children, physicists, dictators—are all just playing in the dark. I imagine skipping through time and space like a kid playing hopscotch. I imagine travelling unexplored landscapes that, by their nature, resist narrow definitions and are immune to mandates of conquest and colonization.
These are ideas that make me feel infinitely happy.
A few weeks before Christmas, Ananda was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In the difficult days after her death I struggled with the superstitious thought that, without her, the three of us would somehow lack cohesion as a family. It was a trick of my mind, I knew, true and not true, a mental slight-of-hand playable only in a time of crisis.
It was my son’s first experience of loss and, as he moved through the different stages of saying good-bye, I made a conscious decision not to make this family tragedy relative. I made a conscious decision not to rank it on the great scale of earthly tragedy. I let it be. Grief rolled through our home like a tidal wave. And then, gradually, it receded.