Tue, 11 May 2004

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a wrinkle in time

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I haven't thought about this book in a long time, despite the number of ideas it spawned within my addled brain, and despite the bizarre synchronicity swirling around this particular point in spacetime.

A Wrinkle in Time was one of the books on the reading list my 4th grader teacher gave us. I remember that me and one of my classmates had actually gotten towards the end of the list, so our teacher had to extend the list a bit to accomodate us.

There was a lot of stuff by Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl, from what I remember, and a lot of other stuff that I barely remember. One of the more haunting ones was Island of the Blue Dolphins, which I'm sure many of you have read. (Incidentally, this book had much currency in my then-expanding weltanschaung, since the aforementioned Island is maybe around 75 miles southwest of Los Angeles, named San Nicolas Island by Spanish. The girl in the story—whose name I forget—actually ended up living—and dying—at Mission Santa Barbara. But, as usual, I digress.) However, what I owe this book list most for is my introduction to the genre of Fantasy.

Like many geeks, I devoured The Hobbit, and read all the books in the Chronicles of Narnia (which is also interesting because apparently J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had somewhat of a complicated personal relationship which I won't even dare to speculate about here) But I also stumbled upon Madeline L'Engle's intrepid series of books, the first one of which was A Wrinkle in Time. (The other ones that I remember really liking are A Swiftly-Tilting Planet and Many Waters) This is probably what sowed the seeds of my obsession with cosmology, which inadvertantly lead me to quantum mechanics and relativity. (I'm not claiming I really understand either of them, and I certainly don't understand the math, but I think I recognize their particular constructs.) In any case, the McGuffin, as it were, is the Tesseract, which is simplistic referred to as the fifth dimension (that is, as hyperspacetime) and which actually well approximates how physicists currently understand the possibility of time travel. (For more on this, I would recommend Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, or more to the point How to Build a Time Machine) Basically, the idea is that spacetime "wrinkles," causing distances to shorten. A journey that would otherwise take 20,000 years at light speed could be accomplished in a few seconds.

Now, the wrinkle is evocative of Einstein's idea of mass causing spacetime curvature (and, ultimately, warpage, in the case of a black hole.) The shortcut through the universe brings to mind the concept of wormholes, which is—ever since Kip Thorne tried to figure out a way that Carl Sagan's protagonist in Contact, ably played by Ms. Jodi Foster, could travel through time—the most likely way to create a time machine.

It remains to be seen if time travel is truly compatible with the laws of physics, and if you've met someone who might seem to be from another planet perhaps they are in reality merely from another time period.

In any case, ABC showed the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time yesterday, and, in addition to increasingly propelling the aspiring scientist in me, it has also reinspired the budding writer in me.

In addition to (perhaps vainly) trying to comprehend quantum gravity and black hole physics, I've also been reading books by Mike Davis, who, besides being a professor at UC Irvine, is also a passionate historian who specializes in the history of Southern California. I just recently finished Dead Cities and am now starting on City of Quartz, and what I am struck by (which I might never have noticed if my sister didn't spell it out for me) is how he invokes the auspices of the now-recognized fantasy subgenre of "magical realism."

Now, bear with me. I'm not a lit major. I'm certainly no sociologist or historian. I'm just a dilettante with a bit of spare time on my hands these days, and so I might be describing this all wrong. But from a Science Fiction and Fantasy perspective, what this is is inserting Fantastic elements into what otherwise would be a "realistic" work of fiction, i.e., set in the present, in societies that we are familiar with (mostly thanks to Hollywood, the MPAA, and the ever expanding universe of media conglomerates.)

Because of A Wrinkle in Time's embedding into quasi-realistic physics and biology and an intuitive but very physical description of Evil, and because the possibility of time travel addresses the possibility of spectacular things happening in the most mundane locales, I've sort of found myself with an affinity to magical realism.

Which is interesting because this is (according to my sister—I may be misinterpreting her) how cultures that do not have scientific traditions archetypically view reality anyway. (We won't get into the bogus science vs. other traditions argument here. I'm not trying to imply any value judgements, but obviously I have my biases.)

Anyway. The other literary thing that A Wrinkle in Time evoked is the idea that reality is non-linear.

I am also reading Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox, which, while mainly illustrating the destructiveness of the false dichotomy between science and humanities, also provides some insight into who the prototypical Hegemon really is.

From the little that I've read in Gould's book, what post-colonial deconstructionists typically see as the Hegemon is in fact a painfully anachronistic remnant of the 17th century Enlightenment, replete in Deistic "rationality" and a belief that this is the best of all possible worlds. (A point-of-view which Voltaire lampooned in Candide, way back when.) Hence, the clinging to Adam Smithian economics, the belief that progress is linear, the idea that all things can be predicted—these are, from what little I understand, the elements of what we simplistically refer to as Capitalist Culture that often allow much Evil to be committed.

Now, science has progressed quite a bit since the 17th century, and what we have learned (admittedly, relatively recently) is (to be reductionist about it) that most everything is unpredictable (see Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Godel's Law, and Chaos Theory), the structure of the universe cannot be deduced by common sense (see Einstein's Theory of Relativity as the prime example), and that while there is an Arrow of Time, it is embodied in Entropy and Decay. So much for utopian progress.

And while people committed to the Struggle might (righteously) rail against the Miltary-Industrial-University Complex embedded within the matrix of Capitalism, whose religion is "science," I do not believe that science is not the enemy here.

As I have taken to habit to say: Science is like a map. It can tell you where everything is (provided you know how to use it), but it can't tell you where you should go.

And what is Science? It is not a disconnected body of facts about the physical world, but a Method. And this Method allows anyone who knows how to use it to gainsay any authority figure. Because without evidence, whatever you say doesn't mean shit. (Admittedly, the Establishment has ways of manufacturing evidence and of discrediting dissenting voices without using such niceties as logic and evidence, but this in itself does not discredit the Scientific Method.)

But I am rambling all over the place, and have long since forgotten my original point, so I'll stop here.

18:58:58 11 May 2004 > > permalink > 31 comments

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