August 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


Just-So Stories: Reading About Infinity

It’s hard to remember, sometimes, that there are other worlds everywhere that coexist with ours. There are people in distant countries reading alphabets that are strange to us. There are tiny ecosystems in cesspools and near railroad tracks and even crawling around on human skin. There are cities and villages we’ve never visited, where the people tell each other histories and stories we’ve never heard.

Yesterday at midnight I was riding back into the city. There were thousands of glittering lights spread out along the river, along the skyline, beautiful the way stars used to be beautiful. I was sunburned on my right side and listening to “Fish on the Sand.” I was staring out the window trying to figure out answers to things I don’t want to live without the answers to. I’d been hiking in Shenendoah and seen some black bears and a wild turkey. At night, I could see the lights of some tiny Virginia city, but not really stars. My travel companion is the kind of person who climbs Kilimanjaro and treks in the Himalayas and likes to hang off sheer rockfaces. I wish I could be that kind of person.

I remember when my fear of heights started -- I was nine years old, climbing the Moon Pyramid in Teotihuacan -- but I have no way of knowing when or how it will end. Maybe it will be on a clear night in the mountains somewhere, where the only lights I can see are balls of plasma from outside the atmosphere of my own planet. I like going into mountains and forests and strange, scary countries, but the best I can do is just sit there, on fat stumps or in sketchy cafés, away from any balconies, away from any summits.

I’m reading How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in Finite Space, a book about physics that’s also a sad love story. It started as a sort of a diary in letters, 1998-2001, from astrophysicist Janna Levin to her mother, and it turned into a public document, something a stranger can buy at the bookstore. It’s a brave book, because she left things in there that she wasn’t sure she wanted to face. It’s hard to be a scientist, burning yourself with dangerous questions, thinking about the death of the sun, knowing your body is made up of dead stars.

It’s hard, also, to love a scientist. Before the book is over, Janna’s partner, Warren, a talented musician, has had a nervous breakdown, and they have lost each other. Her close colleague’s wife, an artist, has committed suicide. “Warren follows me from grant to grant, city to city, different countries. He cooks, cleans, does my shopping, organizes my bills, my life. He used to have his own life, his own ambitions. So many of my colleague’s wives have suffered the same trauma. None of us knows what to do to make it right.”

Before the book is over, she’s also lost the belief that we live in an infinite universe. In February 2000, she’s working on topology, the study of shapes, because seemingly abstract spaces have a profound connection to chaos, and she’s very interested in chaos. She’s talking to some colleagues when she has a rare moment “when I saw my belief system shift. I could not justify a belief in an infinite universe created from nothing. The universe must be finite. And though this was maybe no more than a belief fuelled by raw and shared instinct, I was shaken.”

“Some of the great mathematicians killed themselves,” Levin writes. “The lore is that their theories drove them mad, though I suspect they were just lonely, isolated by what they knew. Sometimes I feel the isolation. I’d like to describe what I can see from here, so you can look with me and ease the solitude, but I never feel like giving rousing speeches about billions of stars and the glory of the cosmos. When I can, I like to forget about maths and grants and science and journals and research and heroes.” She does give rousing speeches, though. She works in a frenzy, “like a madwoman.” She tries to explain things for people like me -- non-scientists, people immune to the mysteries of space and chaos.

“A one-dimensional creature alone on a one-dimensional compact loop looking forward would see light from her back and looking back would see light from her front, in as much as she had a front and back. She’d lay there trapped in this world of limited possibilities looking at herself for eternity. If she didn’t know she was alone on the loop, she’d soon find out… Her solitude would be total.”

“This illusion of distance gives the inhabitant of a compact space the impression that her universe is actually infinite and not finite.”

“Chaos is a natural consequence of life in a finite space. As light and matter orbit the compact space their paths cross and tangle, forming an intricate fractal pattern. When galaxies do finally form as the universe ages, they can condense along these scars, like dirt collecting in scratches on an otherwise smooth surface.”

“Maybe one of the ancient galaxies we see in the distance is really our own galaxy at an earlier age. The light having taken millions of years to get here, we could see our past unfold.”

“Nothing is as it seems. Our bodies are mostly water. Water is mostly empty space. Empty space is a harmonic played on a fundamental string.”

Why would anyone want to try to figure out the size of the universe? Isn’t that the kind of thing that would make a normal person’s head explode? “Is this math useless? Should I stop staring into space, which manages to be disarming by not staring back -- a delicious emptiness with a few bright sparks too distant and too old to return a threatening glare. Shouldn’t I be more concerned with my ordinary life? Or maybe what I really should say is: shouldn’t I accept the ordinariness of life?... Again nature taunts our convention, our intuition, our fear. You have to be brave to study her brilliance.”


The thing is that there’s a reason just-so stories are usually inventions, tall tales, even lies. It’s because ordinary life, in a finite universe, in an infinite universe, is fatally full of mysteries and contradictions. There are always edges we can’t see past. If we do, maybe we just loop back around to ourselves. There are all those things I don’t want to live without the answers to, but then, here I am, living.

Levin writes: “I came back to find Warren catatonic on the couch. He hadn’t spoken to another human being in a week. His eyes were wild but unfocused and he didn’t even get up to greet me. He looked like a man who had just climbed out of the woods. His beard had overgrown his mouth in a wiry trap. I tried to console him, lure him back to this planet, but it was the beginning of our end… We don’t survive. By May I will move to London by myself and it starts over. My life starts over. I didn’t know this yet, but I have the acuity of hindsight now. I can sneak back into the early dates and edit my thoughts… I’m telling parts of a story I don’t really want to reveal. This is a story I’d rather not tell, but the terror of having life come and go with no record impels me forward. If I don’t, my stories will die before me, victims of an incompetent memory. Not that I’m feeling dramatic… I like to write from memory, as imperfect a record as that provides. My memory has been kind to Warren. Sometimes I think I should edit him from these letters.”

But Warren is the real story, or a part of the real story, or one of the stories. Levin’s memory of infinity is kind, too: “Before I reject infinity, I want to admire it.” Maybe it’s comforting, the idea of a finite, edgeless universe, compact and connected, where if we could tackle the cosmos in a spaceship, we might find ourselves where we started. But maybe a finite universe is scarier than an infinite one: “A prison thirty billion light years across.”

Stories are finite, I think. Or are they infinite? We can explain the hows and whys of something -- black holes, the lives of our heroes, the death of a relationship, the roots of a phobia -- but actually we’re always lying, just a little bit. We’re putting something multidimensional into two dimensions, we’re editing, we’re adding, we’re backtracking, we’re making it more or less fantastic, we’re putting hidden messages in there. Sometimes, later, we find things we’ve hidden from ourselves.

“I will write this,” thinks Janna Levin, “without the protection of the future and with the full flavor of the shock and the immediacy of the experience, but I cannot promise I won’t revise, edit, reconstruct when a future has accumulated.”

The epilogue happens after her manuscript has already been turned in. She runs into Warren, a year after they last spoke. She’s looking some different direction, and he’s stopped, blocking her path on purpose: “Staring at me. Wide eyed. The proverbial deer in the headlights. He’s shaking. He’s shaken. It’s Warren.”

I just read Spider-Man Visionaries by Todd McFarlane. In it, Peter Parker gets offered his dream job as a scientist, but it’s in Emporia, Kansas. His love, Mary Jane, has a high-powered career and an awesome penthouse in Manhattan, but she decides to give it all up and move to Kansas. Then Peter Parker surprises her by deciding to go back and get his PhD, so he can get a dream job like that in New York. He thinks it all out on top of the Chrysler building: “Blast! I’m facing the toughest decision of my life! And against that -- all my powers as Spider-Man don’t mean squat!” Even for superheroes, the puzzles of ordinary, daily life are more daunting than the giant questions of good and evil, life and death, creation and explosion. I wonder if it’s easier to untangle yourself from the webs of the past when you’re sitting up that high, staring down fearlessly at the world of New York City when it’s so tiny down there that the cars look smaller than ants. Obviously Spider-Man isn’t acrophobic, but I bet that Mary Jane isn’t either. You’d have to like heights to be Peter Parker’s girl.

Maybe Janna Levin’s isolation is a bit like Spider-Man’s, looking down at the world from a loftier place, seeing things from a perspective that’s hard to explain: “We really do look like a colony of ants strung in ragged lines going up escalators, down escalators, crushing into trains and spilling out of them like blood cells out of a broken vein. There I go, mixing my metaphors. Entomology or physiology, which do you prefer? Where is everyone going? I for one don’t know.”

Acrophobic. Afraid of ἄκρον, afraid of summits and edges. I ought to be happy in finite universe with no edges at all, where I just end up toppling over and running into myself again.

This afternoon, I got a book in the mail: STREB: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero. It’s by a dancer who loves to test the limits of the body in gravity, to figure out how to fly, to figure out how to climb up walls. It starts with a John Cage quote: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones!”

Elizabeth Streb moved to New York City the year I was born. She lived in apartments infested with “super-rats,” cooked six nights a week, faced her worst fear (obviously not heights) when climbing down the fire escape to spy on her first girlfriend, and started an extreme action dance troupe.

“My adventure in life began with action,” she writes, “and I know it will end with action… My dance company STREB began with a dream of flight, rugged and rough, downward-bound, dealing with true space, the sky, an area above the ground. Our aspirations are subject to the problem of how to get up into the air, then manage the land, which is just below the sky’s southern edge and what is immutable: the end of space, the hegemony of the bottom, the savagery of the ground… We are not trying to invent something that already exists: we are trying to locate, define, and recognize new, invisible, uncontrollable physical phenomena. Defining the real move is our holy grail, and we know that it has certain properties, certain secrets that might be alarming and dangerous.”

What’s the difference between a “real move” and a “pure move” or a “true move”? “Something that is real has no referents, no need to assign it with any true or false statements. It simply is.” It is just so. It is just that way. It can’t be revised, edited, reconstructed after the future has accumulated, I guess. “It is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the deepest idea of movement through language.”

Is it? Probably. There’s a body diving off the sheer edge of a cliff and plunging through time and space. You can’t really edit that, if you’re the body, if you’re in the body, if you’re the water and empty space contained within its boundaries, falling. “A move is real if it is irreducible, only itself… it does not seek an alternate meaning; it is a verb; it does; it acts… Real movement isn’t pretending. Real movement doesn’t try to tell a story.”

I could tell you a story about how much I like being up high, how the other night I was at a gallery opening with a ninth floor rooftop terrace, and I loved looking over the edge. But if you’d actually been there, and seen me, you’d know that I tried to hold onto something. A tree (a tree sculpture?), my friend, or the wall. The artist gave out wristbands that said, “It’s not you, it’s me” and “it’s not me, it’s you.” No one else seemed uncomfortable out on that terrace, so it’s like I live in a different world than they do, a world with different dangers.

Both Elizabeth Streb and Janna Levin are, understandably enough, interested in Einstein and Newton. They are both fascinated by the string theory, extra dimensions, and stars. They are both, obviously, obsessed with time. Both of them want to know what causes events “to end or to begin or to happen at all.” “People like us,” said Einstein, “who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a persistently stubborn illusion.” And making a real move involves perilously letting go of pretense: “A bit of crazy magic has to occur. We at STREB are not pretending that the forces that hold us down are not real and powerful. We are taking that fact into account and still attempting to launch our bodies up.”

I look up “acrophobia” in the index of STREB and I don’t find it. I do find “bravery,” though: “There is an act of will that allows certain bodies to venture toward unknown outcomes. In my view, it is those particular humans who don’t worry so much about themselves (or their well-being) who are truly brave. The unsentimental ones who design and perform moves that have such deep symbolism no one ever forgets them -- those are my heroes, even if their actions only happen once.”


Elizabeth Streb challenges herself with “absurdist inquiries” that will keep her busy “for the next twenty years” -- “never land; continue to fall; skip a spot in space; try leaving the room through the wall; question that we have to choose a single direction to move in at any one time… be on fire… stop always stopping…”

In the last chapter, she decides to dive through glass. “I have never not been terrified before a performance, but this was much worse than usual. The lights went out, except for on the glass onstage… I was waiting to be ready. Then I knew I wasn’t going to be ready, so I shot downstage with every corpuscle of metal blood gristle muscle bones sinews pushing, thrashing out of me. I let out a blood-curdling scream as I launched my body and my mind at that glass, punching so hard the glass flew into the first three rows of the audience. I landed, at least two feet downstage of the frame. It was stock still, with a big hole in it. Glass was everywhere. It only lasted two seconds.”

I’ve been flipping through STREB. After I finish reading the whole thing, I plan to make a real move. I’m not sure what my real move will be. I know I’m not going to be ready, but I’ll scramble up to the summit and like it, maybe. I’ll get off my fat stump. I’ll rappel down a boulder. I’ll bang instead of whimper. I’ll think of something and not write it down. I’ll drop the idea that I need to have the answers to all those questions I feel like I can’t live without the answers to. I’ll amble over to an edge, I’ll stop always stopping.