THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
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There's a Hole in the Middle of the World

 

"Limitless undying love
Which shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe"
The Beatles

 

Black Hole in Messier 87

 

1

All physics is local. The laws of the universe apply everywhere, and, unlike the laws of men, they cannot be disobeyed. A black hole, like the one in the galaxy Messier 87 that was the first one ever photographed, is subject to the same forces of nature as the dirt under your feet. The three laws of chemical thermodynamics do not discriminate: matter can be neither created nor destroyed; entropy inevitably increases; and only at a temperature of absolute zero is entropy subdued. A college professor once cagily tied these dictums to everyday existence by framing them this way: "You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game." Like or not, we are part and parcel of the cosmos, and as such, perpetually in motion.

However, every discovery is dogged by the undertow of doubt.

When we say that a black hole has been "seen" for the first time, we are speaking with the imprecision of metaphor. Since light cannot escape from the crushing gravity of a singularity, a black hole cannot be seen at all in the way that we commonly define "seeing". What we actually see is the absence of light in the midst of a gargantuan cloud of super-heated, illuminated gas. And since the gas surrounds the black hole in all directions, we can presume that the photograph has been manipulated so that we can view a cross-section of that region of space, like half a cosmic melon, with the black hole itself outlined within it. And since much of the light emanating from the gas occupies parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to the naked eye, the photo must be further enhanced to render it in the narrow range of human vision, and thus meaningful to our senses. Therefore, what we see is a photographic interpretation of an image of the surrounding particles, within which the existence of a black hole is surmised.

If one could travel 55 million light years in the direction of Messier 87, and get close enough to take a real live photo, it is questionable whether one would make out anything more than a dense cluster of indistinguishable cosmic detritus. Imagine the disappointment, and the very awkward call to one's travel agent back on terra firma.

Then there is the problem of what happens inside the singularity. Do the laws of physics even apply? Are they warped into some unrecognizable form by the extraordinary density of matter? Or does some other set of laws exist of which we are as yet unaware? Cosmologists hope that a better understanding of black holes may help them to find the holy grail of physics, namely the unification of gravity, which holds the big objects in the universe together, and the nuclear forces, which bind the smallest particles. Thus Einstein's relativity may be aligned at last with quantum mechanics, if either or both even pertain to the bizarre interior of a black hole. But since that interior cannot be observed directly — it is impossible to survive falling over the event horizon, and, even if one could, impossible for an explanatory signal to escape — our understanding of them will always be theoretical. Our theories may improve and become refined enough to instill confidence in their accuracy, but they are unlikely ever to reach beyond the realm of conjecture. We've learned a lot about the universe in the last 100 years, and scientists are right to be excited by such discoveries. But each new finding opens previously unimagined vistas of the unknown.

2

In what ways do the attractive properties of nature apply to humans and our relationships to the world and one another? Are the predilections of our biological selves a reflection of the chemistry by which all matter is defined, or a manifestation of other phenomena governed by different rules entirely?

Let us take as our case study the triplets whose lives are depicted in the documentary "Three Identical Strangers". A feel-good story about three brothers separated in infancy, raised by adoptive families and reunited by chance at age 19, devolves into an expose of scientific malpractice and the manipulation of research subjects without their knowledge or consent.

The boys' reunion in the late 1970s was at first joyous and widely celebrated in the media. That they were brothers was immediately apparent, not only because of their appearance but also for the many similarities in their natures. Prior studies of twins separated at birth have shown as much: uncannily similar tastes for foods, colors, hairstyles, clothes and even love partners. Despite being raised by parents with widely differing personalities and parenting styles, and in different social classes, they nonetheless shared many interests and became instantly close to one another.

Three Identical Strangers
The darkness is not visible

The story takes a dark turn when the boys and their parents discover that they were unwittingly part of an experiment undertaken by a prominent psychiatrist, and with the complicity of the adoption agency. Among the otherwise inexplicable similarities in their backgrounds was the existence of an older sister, also adopted, in each of the families. It became clear that their placements were orchestrated to optimize the study. Rather being separated at six months because triplets were hard to place, as the agency claimed, they were in fact intentionally given to comparably structured families that were predetermined to be good subjects. Researchers visited each of boys periodically over many years, observing and filming them, while telling their parents only that they were studying the boys' development. What they were really studying, in part, were the parents and their parenting skills. One research assistant, interviewed for the documentary, thought that the object of the study was to settle the "nature vs. nurture" argument about human development, to prove definitively that our fate is in our DNA and that we are not the agents of free will that we imagine ourselves to be.

The study showed nothing of the kind. The likenesses exhibited by the boys, and touted as a wonder of nature in news articles and television appearances, proved to be superficial. Notably, all three suffered from depression and other psychological problems — possibly exacerbated by their early separation — though the severity varied and was strongly affected by their respective emotional environments. One's predispositions may be genetic, but one's viewpoint and outlook on life are highly dependent on experience. The differences among the boys were in many ways more significant than their similarities, as demonstrated by the divergent course of their adult lives. Individuals may be more at the mercy of unconscious forces than we like to think, but neither are they compelled by nature to follow a predestined outcome.

What the study was truly intended to prove remains a mystery, because no findings were ever published, and all the papers were sequestered at Yale University where no one has been permitted to see them. Perhaps there were no conclusive findings, at least not what the lead researcher, Dr. Peter Neubauer, was looking for. He plainly did not share the view of the boys and their parents that it was morally indefensible to conduct an experiment in which the subjects were treated little better than lab rats. But without having even the justification that it was for the benefit of science makes it worst than despicable. The study certainly had no benefit for those studied, and was more likely to have been injurious to them. What was it for, then: the satisfaction of one man's scientific curiosity? Worse still, Neubauer, now long since dead, was an escapee from Nazi Germany, where notorious, cruel medical experiments were carried out on many non-consenting subjects. What deep, dark hole in the middle of this medical doctor's person could have led him to undertake such an unethical and ultimately pointless study? Perhaps we will find out some day: the publicity surrounding the film helped the brothers to gain access to research documents.

Nature is chemistry: a network of attractions and repulsions that propels us on a certain trajectory. Nurture is gravity: a powerful draw that may nudge us away from that path, or derail us altogether. We may ultimately find that these dual aspects of our lives, like the physical forces that govern planets and particles, are at once intertwined and irreconcilable, two sides of a coin that by necessity face in opposite directions. The elusive grand unified theory, if it exists, is likely to raise more questions than it answers.

3

A whirlpool of plastic trash the size of a small country gyrates in the Pacific Ocean. Like all objects in the universe, it is forever in motion, at the whim of the currents and tides, growing year by year with the accumulating debris of human civilization. Its origins are rooted in a variety of familiar scourges: selfishness, indifference, backwardness, lack of foresight, and failure of collective action. There may yet be a solution; plans have been hatched to corral this grotesque flotsam. But as desirable as such an outcome may be, it is hard to believe that another such mass of junk won't eventually materialize again, and again. The appetites and processes that led to this and many other forms of pollution will not just disappear. Living produces garbage.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Holes everywhere

Entropy is easy, order is hard. Our little island of biological efflorescence is a stunning display of natural order in an otherwise chaotic and violent world. Life may in fact exist all over the universe, but it is nonetheless fragile and exceptional. A single collision could end life on Earth in an instant, as an asteroid very nearly did 65 million years ago. We will meet our end eventually.

In the meantime, the extraordinary biochemical effort required to produce life must also produce waste. Every chemical reaction leaves something unwanted behind. This is not an excuse for being so careless with our trash. The despoiling of the planet by our own hands is neither necessary nor inevitable. But all of our toxic rubbish is part of the world we inhabit, and disposing of it safely will always be an acute problem for delicate flesh-and-blood creatures. Even the inescapable black hole emits a colossal wave of interstellar waste, from which future worlds will one day form. Who are we to exempt ourselves from the laws of the universe?

 

 

April 14, 2019

 

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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.