Rebecca Rosen over at the Atlantic has a fascinating recent article about how the MIT Media Lab is using science-fiction to help technologists think through the process of design. Not merely to think up new gadgets, but to think iteratively and consciously about the technologies they are creating to try and prevent negative implications from occurring before a technology is up and running. A fascinating idea that get us beyond the endless dichotomy of those who call for relinquishment and those urging, risks be damned, full-steam ahead.
For how little respect it gets in literary circles, science-fiction, is a genre that takes the big questions seriously and remains the best tool we have for thinking through the social and ethical questions brought about by technology and for reflecting upon what it means to be human given the decline, at least among many educated persons, of the kinds intellectual and emotional buttresses once provided by religion and the adoption of a materialist worldview that has been built largely out of the discoveries of modern science.
It was in the sense of reflecting upon what it means to be human and what all those experiences that surround every human life such as time, birth and death, love and loss, from a standpoint that is essentially agnostic or atheistic that I found the recent first novel called The Falling Sky by the one time astronomer, Pippa Goldschmidt, such an amazing work of art. It is as if Goldschmitt has invented a brand new form of science-fiction though perhaps she doesn’t think of her work as any sort of science-fiction at all.
I first learned of Goldschmidt from a piece she had written for the New York Times. She wrote of her experience as an astronomer, working, as astronomers needing to escape the constant glare of our city lights need to do, in one of the remotest of places, in this case the Atacama Desert, in Chile. North of the observatory at which she worked lay a place with a horrible history, Chacabuco, a former concentration camp from the 1970’s set up by the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Goldschmidt wrote of the disjunction between the astronomical work she was engaged in and the horrors of Chacabuco:
Our telescopes had the power to detect candle flames many miles away, not to mention galaxies billions of light years away. And yet they never turned toward the camp. They weren’t built to do that sort of observation.”
And I thought; how pregnant with reflection on the nature and role of science, with the need to confront historical memory, with the demand that we keep our eyes open to the truths of the human and not just the natural world , is that! When I saw that Goldschmitt had just published The Falling Sky I felt compelled to buy it, and although the specific juxtaposition of astronomers working in the Atacama with the harsh world of Chacabuco played only a small part in the novel, it did not disappoint. What I found instead in The Falling Sky was a deep reflection on science and consilience, memory and truth, certainty and uncertainty, life and death.
The Falling Sky tells the story of the Smith family and their struggle to recover from the death of the oldest daughter, Kate, in a mysterious drowning accident. The three remaining Smiths, Jenette, the protagonist, her mother and her father each respond to Kate’s death in radically different ways all of which share the feature of being ways to reorient themselves in time. What each of the Smiths attempt to recover is the world of the past- the world where Kate was still vibrant and alive though the ways in which these attempts at recovery are made are radically different.
It is in part Kate’s death and even more her parent’s reaction to it, that draws Jeanette to the stars. The vast interstellar distances mean that looking at the night sky is also looking into the past and becomes a sort of comfort for Jeanette. It is partially in the search for a framework of meaning that would make sense of Kate’s death that Jeanette will turn her passion for astronomy into a successful career. The novel is also, then, a book about the internal politics of science, its very human vanity and careerism, the role of women in science and how psychological need and inclinations influence the process of scientific discovery itself.
Jeannette’s astronomical explorations in Chile result in what might amount to a monumental discovery: two galaxies linked together in such a way that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe seems challenged. Precisely the idea that had drawn Jeannette to astronomy while a child as a way to understand Kate’s death. Up until the time of this discovery science has offered Jeanette a clear line of causation that serves as an alternative to the contingency not just of Kate’s death but her birth.
Kate was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang…
Indeed, for Jeannette astronomy itself is almost a religious practice:
Those journeys up the mountain into air stretched out thin feel as if they take place in another life. Perhaps they’re the scientific equivalent of going to a monastery. Perhaps the only way to understand the universe is to retreat from normal life.
The light now seen from those stars has been emitted by them before Kate died. She has the power to see into the past into a world that is innocent of Kate’s death.
The only way to escape is to travel into atoms and stars….. To uncover the ages of the Universe, like geologic layers, and see how the constant expansion of the Universe makes time happen.”
Jeanette can contrast the solidity of cosmic evolution from Big Bang to the formation of galaxies and stars to the emergence of life which gave rise to her lost sister Kate to “the other version” of her sister being born, the human version, with Kate and Jeannette’s parents meeting on a train platform by sharing a handkerchief. The human story is too contingent, accidental, “ too uncertain, there are too many unknowns”. It also a version subject to the inconstancy of human memory- each parent with a slightly different version of how they met the other- who gave the handkerchief to whom?
If Jeannette’s answer to the death of her sister is to turn her gaze away from the present and peer into deep time, her parent’s engage in their own attempts to keep to reach into the past and hold onto the time before their daughter’s death no matter how much such efforts end up distorting the present and robbing them of the future.
For Jeanette’s mother the goal becomes to freeze time to kept the stream of entropy damned at the time of Kate’s death. The mother does this by creating a kind of museum room for Kate in the family’s new house, a house Kate herself never lived in. The room
… is like an event horizon showing the last bit of ordinary life clinging to Kate.
Jeanette’s mother also takes on a new career and becomes a de-clutterer helping people to purge themselves of their accumulated things.
Jeanette can’t stop thinking of all the things taken away, like some surgical procedure performed by her mother. People amputated from their favorite belongings.
In a way you might see the actions of Jeanette’s mother as a sort of stand against the forces of entropy, the source of the Universe’s arrow of time, the fact that things pile up transform, grow chaotic, inevitably change. Jeanette’s mother wants a world frozen in amber at the time of her daughter’s death and has in the process turned her family’s home into “a desert devoid of time.”
The response of Jeannette father to Kate’s death is also one of trying to anchor himself to the past though at first he is confronted by the garden grown with his own hands and its display of the ability of nature to seemingly escape death through it’s capacity to begin again.
But as her dad tended to the garden and watched it grow, he must have realized how blind all this activity is. There’s no intent, no purpose to this new grass. It simply is. And Kate simply isn’t. It must have taunted him with its ability to revive and renew.
The initial response of Jeannette father, however, is to set his garden ablaze and in the process burn himself. His response, thereafter, is not only to tend to his vegetable garden and flowers, the only type of resurrection he can control, but to try to anchor himself to the past in a way that is similar to that of his wife and Jeannette. Shortly before Kate’s death he had been flirting with a woman and he now throws himself into extramarital affairs which also serve as an escape from the suffocation of his home.
Yet, if The Falling Sky gives us a whole world of reflection on the subject of time and death, it is a novel of much else besides, such as giving us a new and what I found to be a deeper version of what E.O Wilson called “consilience”- the coming together of science and the humanities.
In contrast to the way the digitization of the tools of astronomy have cut astronomers off from the sky they see with their eyes, which is what Jeannette experiences during her research in Chile, her early love of astronomy grew not only from an urge to escape but from the desire to partake of a kind of unveiling where the true nature of the Universe could be seen. In developing an exposure of Rigel one of the many double stars of Orion:
This is what she can do. Make the unseen, seen. Find things and know them. These things are real to her, even though she can’t reach them.
Later in her life, Jeannette’s lover Paula who is an artist engages in a similar sort of unveiling. Her portrait of Jeannette dealing not with her surface but uncovering what might only be called her essence. In the same way that Jeannette photographs of her first, and unrequited love while she was a teenager, Alice, were an attempt to unveil the girl’s “soul”. In a way the failure of this love when Alice flees at the confession of Jeannette’s feelings sets the stage for her obsessive focus on astronomy. Viewed from a sufficient distance the Universe will not crush you and yet still offers itself up to be unveiled.
Sex too is presented as the same sort of unveiling, the discovery of a body and the depth of the person behind it. Jeannette understands this in the language of science:
Since they became lovers, Paula exists in several dimensions in a way no one else does…. they don’t overwhelm her with information and memories in the way that Paula does. She can’t look at Paula’s arms without being reminded of the first time she stroked them, and felt the texture of the skin. Only Paula fully inhabits space and time.”
Goldschmitt is offering here a version of consilience that is much different than the kinds of hierarchy of knowledge seen in the works of E.O. Wilson. Rather than science being the perspective from which all fields of knowledge derive their ultimate sanction, science is just one among many different not so much types but practices of seeing and unveiling to see. Astronomy reveals one type of truth about the Universe, but so does painting and even love. Yet, this kind of unveiling demands a kind of openness to what one will find once one attempts to really know something or someone, and such openness can best be understood as a willingness to accept uncertainty. Perhaps, The Falling Sky might best be understood as a primer on accepting uncertainty as the price of deep knowledge and this is as much the case for science as it is for art and even more so when it comes to romantic love.
In the scenes where Jeannette is interviewed by the BBC, Goldschmitt not merely manages to display the way in which science is distorted by modern media and those vested in some particular outcome when it comes to scientific discovery but the centrality of uncertainty for the practice of science itself.
Jeannette discovery undermining the support for the Big Bang becomes fodder for religiously inspired intelligent- design “loons” who see in her touching galaxies a cosmic scale version of Michelangelo’s “God and Man”. But traditional religion appears much less pernicious than the peddlers of pseudo-science who run far ahead of Jeannette potentially paradigm shifting discovery.
Here is how Goldschmitt describes one such peddler, David Grant, being interviewed with Jennette on the BBC about the implications of her discovery:
Grant: “Oh, there are all sorts of possibilities. The plasma universe is one. In this model everything is connected by twisted magnetic fields…’ He’s off. Not even the interviewer can stop him spouting an incontinent stream of alternative theories… It’s all words. He’s not making any attempt to explain these madcap ideas they’re just spilling out all over the studio, most likely confirming the interviewer’s prejudice that science is long words and jargon, designed to exclude ordinary people.”
Jeannette directly confronts the interviewers notion that science exists to give us clear and unambiguous answers:
That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.
Yet, the extent to which Jeannette has been dependent on the control over uncertainty she has gained through astronomy is shown when the Orion probe, which is the only means by which her touching galaxies and their implications for the Big Bang can be definitively established, blows up at launch. At that she suffers mental breakdown unable to reconcile a long lasting uncertainty, which she herself has caused, regarding the very theory upon which she has centered her personality.
‘What else would be normal if we didn’t have a Big Bang?’ ‘It would just be- chaos. No structure at all.’ And she realizes, maybe for the first time, that most people don’t have this structure to their lives. This cosmic scaffolding to cling onto. Perhaps that’s why they go for religion.
By choosing a course that seemed to grant her financial certainty, as in tenure and grants through the notoriety of her findings, Jeannette has put at risk and ultimately lost the kind of cosmic solidity that she has embraced in light of her sister’s death.
What Goldschmitt is exploring here is a relationship between the accepting uncertainty and our orientation towards both the world around us and the people we place our trust in within it. Any open exploration in science, in art, in love means we may discover something we do not like or might not want to know. It is a form of risk taking where risk consists of losing the very identity, and our affection for and connection to the very object, that pulled us towards it in the first place.
Many human endeavors exist in this space besides art, science, and love. Plato in his Symposium describes philosophy as a form of love that works in this way. Religion, not when it is the source of “answers”, but in its mystical manifestations which are born of the search for God and end in an acceptance of the ineffable nature of the divine is like this as well.
Goldschmitt is also exploring the relationship of uncertainty and our orientation towards the future. Jeannette’s family is restored only when the uncertain nature of Kate’s drowning death is laid out for all to see and confront. In accepting this other risks and their uncertain outcomes can now be embraced- Jennette can be open with her family about her sexuality as can her father with his infidelities. Jeannette can walk away from renewing her relationship with Paula in a spirit of openness to what the future might bring.
Jeannette ultimately comes to see Kate’s death in a way similar to how her father experienced his garden but was initially unable to accept:
But even in nothing there is always something. Nothingness never actually exists. Nothing plus the uncertainty principle will always make something, particles of energy that pop into being and out again. The higher their energies the shorter their lives. That’ll do for her. She can play with that.
In writing The Falling Sky Goldschmitt has provided an alternative to the common literary tropes that are so often found when scientists are found in a work of fiction. There is the Promethean trope of the scientist struggling against the odds and against the forces of ignorance to arrive at the truth whose mirror image is the equally as common myth of Dr Frankenstein, the mad scientist whose hubris leads to destruction. The Falling Sky might be thought of as a version of realist science-fiction. The scientists in Goldschmidt’s novel, including Jeanette herself, are driven as much if not more by petty careerist aspirations and their own unmet psychological needs as by any heroic desire for the truth. At the same time, the scientist in The Falling Sky are no Dr Frankensteins either. Perhaps Jeannette’s ultimate goal is to understand the world as it really is and as best as she can and manifest a deep kind of inner courage in being willing to submit beliefs that for her have such deep psychological meaning to the challenge of scientific verification.
Goldschmidt’s leap over these two tropes of science-fiction is a perfect compliment to the much different use of science-fiction as a guide to ethical pre-design being experimented with at the MIT Media Lab whose premise is that both blind faith in science and technology and outright rejection is too simplistic. Let’s take warnings about the potential ill effects of a technology seriously and see if we can design around them before the technology is actually deployed.
Although we should not expect to always to have easy answers. Indeed, sometimes we see something more clearly even if no definitive answers have been provided at all. Above all, for me, that was what I gained by reading this wonderful little novel. In a way few works have done for me, after putting the book down I felt I knew more about time, and memory, and death, about what it means to live itself, and yet I was no nearer to any answers and felt even these revelations were beyond my power to articulate.