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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 08/12/2002
Volume 2, Number 44

I Dream of Superman

In a recent column on the Perpetual Comics site, critic Rick Chandler stated that:

"Schwartz (that's me) was in our opinion the greatest Superman writer ever. He was way ahead of his time." And more flattering stuff like that. But there's something behind my approach to Superman or to comics in general that underlies and leads to Rick's comment. It has to do with my view of reality which developed slowly over the course of a lifetime, and is now at the point where I can lay it out. Writing my memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET and its sequel, A GATHERING OF SELVES (available in back issues of this column) helped me bring it out into the daylight where I can express it somewhat simply.

I'll admit reality is a complicated subject, so I'll start by examining one of the major fields in science that's very profoundly occupied with getting at the basis of reality. It's called Particle Physics. Particle Physics is, to begin with, very, very expensive. If you've ever heard of Fermilab, which is the American version of the gigantic accelerators that are used to smash nuclear material into bits so that we can find out who and what we really are. Fermilab has cost billions. There's another one in Europe, even bigger which cost even more billions.. And there are plans for a bunch of rich nations to build one so big, it'll bring us much closer to the reality of things than ever before.

Now I'm not against Particle Physics, as such. It does seem to be a lot of fun. But so is Nintendo-and a lot cheaper. Why do I put it this way? Well, let me quote from Dr. Kenneth Bloom, a distinguished particle physicist at the University of Michigan:

"Particle physics is a science of origins and essence; it is about what we are made of, and how we got to be here. If the properties of elementary particles, even those we only encounter in accelerator experiments, were any different, then the properties of atoms would be different, and the world around us would be different; life itself may not be possible. We ourselves are, ultimately, extremely large aggregates of subatomic particles, and to understand them is to understand ourselves. Such self-understanding (in this scientific sense and in other senses, too) has been a goal of societies throughout history, and it should be a goal of ours, too. This may not shine through in my day-to-day activities, but that's what the work is really about." (From The Edge web page by that remarkable agent, John Brockman, whose "third culture" has made science one of the most interesting elements in the contemporary reading public's awareness) (

Dr Bloom also goes on to tell how much fun particle physics really is, and how much of a kick he gets being in the midst of finally finding out what we're all made of.

Well, I'll admit that particle physics already helps us do things like changing the molecular structure of things we use so that we get better steel, better ceramics, better things of every kind. So you can't exactly say it doesn't have its uses. But basically,we should all be aware that this is a reversion to Cartesian principles. Break matter down into its smallest components and we'll soon figure out exactly what we are. We'll have "self-understanding" as Dr Bloom puts it.

Now, this approach to science is also known among scientists as "reductionism". Not many scientists outside particle physicists accept this. There are new theories about how increasing complexity creates "emergent properties" that simply were not present in the elementary and basic particles on which our whole reality is founded. In other words, as I've had occasion to point out here in a previous column, there is no such thing as heat among sub-atomic particles. Only when we get to greater levels of complexity does heat emerge. So if this is the case, why pour so many billions into larger and larger accelerators. Let me mention here that I'm an expert on accelerators. Sometime late in World War II, I wrote a Superman daily in which I tried to examine the difference between the mechanistic views of science and the more holistic view of reality by using a physicist, Dr Duste, as representative of the former, and an English professor, Dr. John Lyly to represent the latter. In fact, I was representing two theologies that are still clashing in the modern world-the theologies of materialism and the theology of value-or what's known in philosophy as axiology. Anyway, as many of you may already know, when I had Superman step into an accelerator, in those days known as an atom smasher, I unwittingly stirred up a hornet's nest. The atom bomb was still a top secret operation and my mention of an atom smasher (details of which I acquired from a 1935 edition of Popular Mechanics) brought the FBI storming in. They tried to censor the script, but too late. The story made it into many papers anyway. And then, the ever secretive Donnenfeld-Liebowitz axis sent the FBI chasing after Jerry Siegel simply because these furtive owners of DC were more interested in trying to cover up the fact that Jerry Siegel who had his name on the strip, wasn't writing it, but I was, and had been for a long time.

Of greater interest, however, was the fact of the warring theologies. Particle physicists believe like Descartes that by finding the ultimate basic form of matter, they'd understand exactly what we're like. Now I should mention here that Descartes claims to have gotten this idea from a dream. A dream, mind you, that isn't analysable into its basic ingredients. But maybe that was just a chance thing. Maybe. And besides, since Einstein, and beyond Einstein, since the new physics is based on the behavior of subatomic particles, and the discovery of quanta by Max Planck--- oops-I said Max Planck. What about Max Planck?

Remember, without him there'd be no quantum physics today, and certainly no particle physicists like Dr. Bloom. But-you see-when Planck first presented his findings to the scientific community about energy moving in packets, or quanta-he was very embarrassed. Why? Because it had all come to him, as he acknowedged, IN A DREAM.

I really don't know if Dr Bloom and his co-workers ever considered trying to put a dream into an accelerator. The only dream these people seem to have is someday to get enough billions together to build an accelerator that's maybe ten thousand miles long. Of course, as scientists, they don't really expect to get more than a much closer approximation to the truth (in science, truth is a metaphysical word. Not quite kosher), but gradually, slowly, eventually, with the help next time of maybe a 20,000 mile accelerator-the approximations will get so close, it won't really matter.

But there's also a problem with endless approximations. At some point, they tend to reverse themselves-become enantiodromic-(see my earlier column on enantiodromia)-and we have to start all over again. Maybe by building smaller and smaller accelerators?

Besides, this whole business is not a new idea. Essentially, science through mathematics, through tools like accelerators, is always attempting to build a better and better model of reality. Men have been constructing such models as far back as we can remember. The most primitive people on record attempted it. And by the way, those models worked. Take voodoo, for example. You want to get rid of an enemy? You get some voodoo lady to build a model of that enemy. With the model, you've got control over him. Because now, you can stick pins in the model, and often enough, the real individual, not the model, would die. So there's something to this model building, after all.

Now let's step back a bit. The Australian aborigines speak of something called the "dream time". That was way back when men were always dreaming and creating reality through their dreams. (Has that really changed?) Then, it seems, they began to step away from constant dreaming and enter into their own dream creation-the material world.

At this point, I think I've said enough to ask Dr. Bloom and his friends, how it can be that whenever someone thinks of a possible particle, almost inevitably, when they start looking for it, they find it? Did they dream it up? Come on,doctor. tell us.

But also, doctor, tell us this. Suppose we took an automobile apart. Every screw, nut, bolt, panel, part, piece.... would analysing these tell us that it's a car if there were no cars around and nobody ever heard of one.

A teacher of mine once told me: "Our dreams are us, but we are not our dreams."

Think of that statement as a kind of Koan. Work on it. And then let me re-introduce one of the great dreams of our time. He's ours. He's us in our best and highest moments. And in some form, he'll always be around. He's Superman.


<< 08/05/2002 | 08/12/2002 | 08/19/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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