Sunday, November 05, 2006

The here and now

I had occasion the other day to take down from the shelf of the college library a tattered copy of Virginia Woolf's The Waves. I found there the inconspicuous marks I made in the margins 40 years ago (and failed to erase), when I first read the book. Most of the flagged passages were in the early chapters, when the novel's characters -- Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, Louis -- are young and full of enthusiasm for life, for love, for discovering the meaning of things.

I was a young scientist-teacher when I first read The Waves, dazzled by the elegance and power of mathematical physics. How excited I was, for instance, to solve with my students Shrodinger's Equation for the hydrogen atom, to share with them the apparently miraculous way those beautiful symbols -- that could be written on the back of an envelope -- contained within them, in principle at least, the secrets of the universe. It was a time when the evidence for plate tectonics and big bang cosmology was falling dramatically into place. I was in thrall to science, deeply moved by its historical success and future potential. Correspondingly, my lectures were models of optimistic precision, neatly chalked on the board. I imagined my life might be organized with similar precision, plotted out in a smooth parabolic curve like a cometary orbit

Now, 40 years on, I read the passage I bracketed toward the end of the novel, when the mature Bernard reflects back upon his life. Why did I flag that passage? Perhaps I suspected even then that the clarity of my vision at age thirty -- my sense that I had things figured out -- might someday be found wanting:

"Now to sum up," said Bernard. "Now to explain to you the meaning of my life. Since we do not know each other (though I met you once I think on board a ship going to Africa) we can talk freely. The illusion is upon me that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, is completed. This, for the moment, seems to be my life. If it were possible, I would hand it to you entire. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. I would say, "Take it. This is my life." "But unfortunately, what I see (this globe, full of figures) you do not see. You see me, sitting at a table opposite you, a rather heavy, elderly man. grey at the temples. You see me take my napkin and unfold it. You see me pour myself out a glass of wine. And you see behind me the door opening, and people passing. But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story -- and there are so many, and so many -- stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true."

Science is no less important to me now than it was when I first read The Waves. I still want to know how the world works. If there is a distant star that wraps itself in ruby dust, I want to know it. If there is a worm that builds itself a parchment house on the seafloor, I want to know it. I want the most reliable knowledge of the world I can find, and for all of its possible shortcomings, the best source of reliable knowledge is science.

But I no longer believe that science even potentially exhausts the mystery of the world, or tells me how to live. It may put the image of a star that wraps itself in ruby dust on my computer screen, but it does not explain the chill that runs up my spine when I see the photo. It can place before the lens of my camera the goofy-looking worm that builds the parchment house on the seafloor, but it doesn't explain why I laugh when I see it. Not yet, at least. Perhaps never. Science is a finite invention of the human mind, a sketch of reality. The universe is essentially infinite in its nuance and detail.

Which may explain why at one point in my life, after having published a number of books on science, I tried my hand at fiction. It took me half a lifetime to learn that for entire realms of human experience, fiction can be more real than fact.

But even fiction -- the fiction that lives down through the ages, which was so important a part of my education at mid-life -- fails in the face of the sheer prodigality of the creation. There come now and then, perhaps more frequently now than previously, those moments when creation grabs me by the shoulders and gives me such a shake that it rattles my teeth, when love for the world simply knocks me flat. At those moments everything I have learned in 70 years seems like a pale intimation of what is.

"Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, like the shuffling of feet on the pavement. I begin to seek some design more in accordance with those moments of humiliation and triumph that come now and then undeniably. Lying in a ditch on a stormy day, when it has been raining, then enormous clouds come marching over the sky, tattered clouds, wisps of clouds. What delights me then is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and movement; something sulfurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost, and I forgotten, minute, in a ditch. Of story, of design I do not see a trace then."

In moments of soul-stirring epiphany, it is reassuring to feel below our feet a floor of reliable knowledge, the safe and sure edifice of empirical learning so painstakingly constructed by the likes of Aristarchus, Galileo, Darwin and Schrodinger. But at the same time we are humbled by our ignorance, and more ready than ever to say "I don't know." Erwin Chargaff, who contributed mightily to our understanding of DNA, wrote: "It is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist; the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva into the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist."

"But meanwhile, while we eat, let us turn over these scenes as children turn over the pages of a picture book and the nurse says, pointing: 'That's a cow. That's a boat.' Let us turn over the pages, and I will add, for your amusement, a comment in the margin."

Further Reading

Virginia Woolf's The Waves is not the novel that is taught by my colleagues in the English Department. That would be Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One's Own, or To the Lighthouse. Perhaps they think The Waves is over the top. The aquatic transitions are certainly a bit pretentious.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.