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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 08/23/2004
Vol. 2, #137

Remember That Old Platter?

Back in the ancient days when men believed the earth was a platter and you could fall off the edge, they weren't so foolish as they may sound today. There are stories from those times, graven on walls, of just that happening, boats drifting off the edge into the unknown horrors of nowhere. There were also murals embedded in the caverns of ancient cities like Thrace in which dragons lurking at the seas' farthest edge were pulling men off their boats and eating them. This was evidence. This was fact. Don't get the idea that men of the past were stupider then than we are. We're just as stupid today, if you think of all the people who might end up voting for George Bush. We're so stupid that everyone seems to be rushing to get their own national atom bomb that will blow up the world. That's a real advance, isn't it?

But my purpose today isn't political. Today I'm all philosopher. Today I'm a philosopher of believing. Because the so-called universe is made up entirely of what we believe and the way we've selected evidence for believing it. We've extended our senses with gadgets like spacecraft and the Hubbell telescope. We can see farther, bigger, smaller, better, deeper than anyone before us, though there are things we can't see as the ancients did because we've limited our seeing to certain kinds of material instruments. So we don't see angels and devils and dragons and the spirits of nature, and stuff like that. Because we've established rules that only things seen through material instruments of our own invention are real. Science, as we think of it, has apparently cleared up a lot of nonsense from the old days. We're the inheritors of "the enlightenment", right?

Let's take a look at one of our more advanced sciences, astrophysics, or advanced star-gazing. As I look, I discover one of the most confused sciences that's around today or any day. For example:

A couple of years back, the staid old Washington Post ran this story: "In recent months, two eminent cosmologists have proposed that the bang, which occurred about 15 billion years ago, was not a unique beginning but part of an endlessly recurring cycle of bangs and expansions. According to this view, serial universes are created and then disperse into space, one after another, with each cycle lasting trillions of years." So in that case by which universe was the "time" of 15 billion years estimated? And which one is ours?

The world of astrophysics is really in ferment with new notions of the background radiation that allegedly proves "the big bang"; serious differences on dark matter, whether the universe is expanding, whether light is really the true indicator of the presence of energy... about all these questions, some say yes and some say no. And now we even have a few respected scientists insisting that there's really no past and future but an endless series of "Nows" as though if something is now it could be somewhere "not now." If you think men were foolish with their dragon theories, our foolishness is better and more complicated and a lot less colorful. I used to write superhero stories and a lot of us who did this thought we were really pandering to childish visions just to make a living. The best theory of all, it appears, is "string theory"--acknowledged by all to be a great theory but with absolutely no way of proving it.

The fact is, I challenge anyone to show me where Superman is any less credible than most astrophysical theories that purport to explain our universe, er-rr, universes.

Now, I'm going to do something I've never done before in this space. I'm going to continue this column with a good hunk of an old column that makes the point so well I think it deserves repeating here.


What is not there is more than what is there.

A strange, cryptic statement? Only superficially. In fact, this column has to a great extent been dedicated to the "what is not there" more than anything else. I've used words to describe aspects of Reality mostly ignored because they're outside the spectrum of our everyday experience. Yet all that we do in the arts, especially in the comic book art that created "impossible" superheroes, is largely because the "not there" exerts a compelling force on all of humanity and provides a lens through which we can leap beyond the known world and explore realms of reality that challenge the imagination.

I think it's very important to bring this up from time to time, because as I said in a recent book, even though strange things happen all the time, we tend to forget them quickly and as the rabbi character in the book says, explaining why he gets up every night to wash the dishes, "the dust gathers on the dishes every night." That is, unless we get reminders from time to time, we forget about our strange and often enlightening contacts with the "not there."

So just to make sure you understand what I'm talking about, note well the words of one Philip Ball writing in Nature (Nov. 3, 2003) "Different rules may apply in the dark, deserted corners of the Universe, a team of astrophysicists is proposing."

This is worrying, they warn. We simply look where the light is - like hunting for your keys only in the puddles of streetlamp light. It is about all we can do. But in so doing, we may be getting a biased view of the Universe, they argue.

Most of our Universe is composed of lightless voids, inside which stars and galaxies cannot form, say Jeremiah Ostriker of the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues. But these dark regions, they argue, might not be as empty as they appear. Astronomers have generally assumed that where there is more light, there is proportionately more matter. Some of this matter is visible, in the form of bright stars and galaxies; some of it is mysterious 'dark matter'. No one knows what dark matter is - it is detected because it exerts a gravitational pull on luminous matter.

Ostriker's team contends, however, that light is not necessarily a good way of tracing matter. Their computer simulations of the structure of the Universe indicate that light actually switches off rather abruptly as the total density of matter in space falls. Below a certain mass density, they calculate, it becomes difficult for stars to form. Yet this darkness should not be assumed to imply emptiness. The gloomy voids are like pieces of a "lower-density Universe", say the researchers, where there is matter but no stars. They take up 85% of the Universe, the team estimates, and contain 20% of its total mass.

In other words, many orthodox scientists are coming to believe that what is "not there", that is, outside our general purview of reality, may be more important to the universe than what we think is there.

In bringing this up today, my hope is to remind all of you that the so-called impossible things I often talk about here, people that glow, the eternal now, the illusoriness of time, even little Nissans that I've learned how to use to chauffeur me back in time to the Greenwich Village of the 1940s, yes, even that is possible if you can master the art of stepping outside the circle of known light. In the despairs we often experience, in the disappointments that often hound us, in the so-called failures of our existence, we are only arriving at such states because we tend to measure or evaluate them in terms of a common light. Among those common and often false lights are such credos as patriotism, religions that make their case by fiat, scores of beliefs that have become common because they represent, we are told, lighted areas.

Nor am I saying that the light is not good. Rather that, to quantify its validity, it's good or right only about fifteen percent of the time. Consider then that whatever difficulties you see yourself as enduring at this moment, I'm not saying they're false or unreal, but rather that you only really see about fifteen percent of the problem. There's a kind of guaranteed eighty-five percent of hope for you. In short, the odds are heavily in your favor. But, and there's a very big but, you've got to become aware of how much more there is than the limited circle in which you see your troubles which may, in the larger picture, not be troubles at all.


If you've considered all these things, then you can safely tell yourselves that we are no more living in troubled times than we ever did. All times have their troubles from the Red Death to the Bomb. We do the same dance over and over again. And we always think we're getting ahead, in the long run. However, the answer is not up ahead somewhere, or way back then. It's here and now. All you have to do is reach for it.

<< 08/16/2004 | 08/23/2004 | 08/30/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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