and the Big Bang:
John Timpane Goes to Cambridge
EDITOR’S NOTE: See the first part of our interview with John Timpane in Wild River Review 2.5.
In the second and final installment of a wide-ranging interview, John Timpane, Associate Editor of the Editorial Board of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a member of the first group of recipients of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion, talks about his career and what brought him to Cambridge University.
WRR: Where does science fit into your life as poet and editor?
But I loved science and would go into the library and read science journals. A lot of my friends were scientists, and we sat around and talked about what was being discovered, and what could be discovered, what soon would be discovered.
WRR: While working as an academic and creative writer, you also “grew” a third career, as a freelance writer in the sciences. How did that get started?
Beginning in the mid-seventies and for the next thirty years, I started writing about the sciences. When I was at Stanford, a scientist approached me to write up his lab work for a journal article. Very unethical, but the money was good, so I agreed, and instead of explaining his work, he plopped on my lap a sheaf of papers with numbers on them. I went round to his graduate assistants and asked what they thought they’d done. “We don’t know,” they said; they really weren’t sure what the main point was of all this work they were doing. So I asked a lot of questions, made something up, gave it to the scientist, and allowed him to belittle me, which he did, change a lot of stuff, which he did, then hand it back, belittling me some more. I rewrote his rewrite, and he sent it off. Got published!
From then on, word of mouth brought me a lot of work. Still does today. I recently finished an interactive program to teach sales people about a low-flow metering system for industrial applications. If that sounds “brainy,” don’t let it fool you. I never understand a thing when I first come in to such a project but eventually, I usually get a sense of it, and if I ask the right questions at the right time, I usually figure out what story I should tell. And that has a lot of parallels with both poetry and journalism. Always, I ask: what is the story I simply have to tell? Once I had to write the PI the package insert for a drug that moderated hypertension by intervening in this bodily process called the “renin-angiotensin system.” And I guarantee you, when I first saw the words renin-angiotensin system, I wanted to run somewhere and hide. But one flounders on, and when I learned what all these hormones did, and how they had their effect on what tissues in the body, and how very, very cleverly this drug intervened in all that what a great, great story.
And the heart of any scientific report is the narrative what you did, how you did it, what you achieved, what it all means. Responsible storytelling, that’s what it is. Responsible to the state of knowledge as we know it right now and responsible to the reader.
Also, without question, working in science and technical writing has made my thinking and writing far, far more concrete. I pay much better attention to detail, to process I am a better observer than before I started doing all this and I hope I am more precise! than back in the day. And, I have to say, getting on top of a lot of science means you learn a lot about a lot. That can give you more things to think and write about. All of which, I dearly hope, has done very good things for my poetry. I don’t think you could call it “scientific poetry,” but my natural tendency to be vague and dreamy has, I desperately hope, gotten reined in by the experience of having to write precisely and accurately, both in science and in journalism.
When I left my academic job at Rutgers, I continued freelancing. Within the first couple of months I had more scientific work than I knew what to do with. There is so much out there! I wrote a lot of supplementary materials for drugs that are now very famous, like the renin-angiotensin inhibitor Captopril and the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin. So, in a rough and ready way, not at all as a scientist but as a responsible storyteller, I had to get on top of the sciences and this is where one finds out that one is a journalist! Because clients would give me tons of material, and I’d have to learn it really fast, and come up with a project that made sense, all in a very short period of time. Alas, I guess that’s something I can do. I say, “Alas,” because it’s a lot of hard work, and I stayed up hundreds of nights until dawn, writing these projects. Very hard work. But that’s the freelancing life.
WRR: You wrote a writing textbook that emphasized argument and persuasion, one of the earlier texts to do that. Why did persuasion attract you as an approach to writing?
As you mentioned, I was a college English teacher for about 17 years and wrote a lot of Shakespeare criticism. I co-authored a composition textbook that’s still out there, barely, called Writing Worth Reading, published by Saint Martin’s Press. My coauthor was Nancy Huddleston Packer, a very fine short story writer, a teacher at Stanford, and a much beloved friend.
Rhetoric and critical thinking the business of persuasion, and the practice of being a skeptical, aware, critical reader and writer is, I think, at the heart of being a good writer, a good learner, and a good citizen. If you are informed and engaged, you’ll pay attention to how people try to sell you their ideas. In the early 1980s, analytical and critical thinking was fresh and warm as an approach to teaching writing. How do you form an argument? What is the role of logic in structuring arguments? What are the aims and methods of persuasion?
Persuasion is worked into the very fabric of language. In a recent podcast for the Web zine Dragonfire, I discussed how “spin” in other words, persuasion is inevitable, even in the simplest communicative act. If you’re going to say, “Jim is tall,” and someone says, “Prove it,” or “How tall, exactly?”, OK, how will do you that? The best way would be to bring Jim in the room. But failing that, you prove it by giving a number. If you say, “Jim is seven feet tall,” that’s impressive. Numbers are persuasive. You could bring in experts to discuss how unusual it is for a person to be that tall. You could bring in medical records.
Or you can tell a personal story about Jim: “Jim’s so tall he can’t even fit into my Volkswagen Jetta.” Personal anecdotes are persuasive, but they’re not as persuasive as numbers or expert opinion. And so there are ways in which we support ourselves in our arguments that are more persuasive or less persuasive.
Now, I knew all that before I ever went to college. My mom, dad, brothers, and sisters were all voracious readers and big wiseacres, big arguers with the TV. Dad would yell at the TV when Everett Dirksen or someone else he didn’t care for was talking. So I was raised in an atmosphere in which all arguments were automatically flung open for criticism and dreadful abuse.
I was writing articles for newspapers, and I was an English professor. And what is an article that you write about Shakespeare in a journal, if not an article that seeks to persuade? “I’m going to say something about Shakespeare that no one has said before. Something about a play that I feel is new.” I’m going to have to persuade you somehow to believe me. How am I going to do that?
The debate surrounding that question is the heart of public life. The Greeks and the Romans knew. In ancient Greece and Rome, one of the first things a young man of a certain class learned was how to make a speech in the forum. And why? Because that was going to be the basis of his public life, the ability to persuade people. That’s still true today, yet, even though we are consumers of persuasion, Americans don’t always realize it. No one’s saying you have to be aware of it, but I truly believe that such awareness has made my life richer and more interesting. Not because everyone is a liar or everyone’s trying to sell you something (although it can get to seem like that) because the more you are aware of the innards of argument, the more you can taste the movements of other minds, one of the sweetest, most intimate things you can experience.
So persuasion became my baby, and that’s what Nancy’s and my book was about. Almost every word out of my mouth is garbed in persuasion of some sort. It’s not because I’m a bad person. It’s because I believe something, wish to share it with you, and hope you’ll agree with me. But if you don’t, we’ll both learn something because we can have a conversation about it. And that is the essence of public life.
WRR: How do persuasion and poetry mesh?
Poems have a rhetorical structure, too consider the traditional sonnet, which is very rhetorical, with a first quatrain that broaches a subject, a second that extends and develops it, then, again traditionally, a But to begin the ninth line (either that, or a further extension of the theme, until it’s about to break), and then, if it’s a Shakespearean sonnet, a neat conclusion in the couplet. All of which is geared for maximum persuasive value.
The good poet stays aware of the rhetorical structure of the poem its gestures, its fictive claims, and the way those claims are made vivid and compelling. Every metaphor you choose is an act of persuasion. I wrote a short tankette for you that established a metaphor between a man in love and a set of earrings his beloved wears. That man is trying to tell her how he loves and desires her by establishing that comparison. That’s persuasion; metaphor is persuasion. I’m one of those na•ve folks who sees poetry as a transaction with someone else as I write, I imagine the person who hears or reads my poem. I’m always a rhetor as well as a poet.
When I was an English professor, my job was to help people be more conscious of persuasion. Yet there’s a profound difference between consciousness and self-consciousness. If someone is very self-conscious, they won’t be able to write a good poem. Because they’ll always be worrying about their material and their approach to it, their style and all that goes along with it. There’s got to be a time when you forget all that and just go into a room and write.
This brings us into some very important advice for writers, which is at a certain point one must commit. One must forget comments and critiques, and one must do. As a poet, I can read criticism and argument about what poetry should and shouldn’t be. But then I worry about influence and all this other stuff that poets do, and so I really believe it’s important just to sit down, forget all that, and just do it. You won’t be able to write if self-consciousness overwhelms you.
WRR: Can you talk about the difference between skepticism and cynicism, particularly in context of your job as an editor?
The center of my life as a citizen is this belief and many people have told me I’m na•ve, idealistic, etc., and I honor them but here it is: It is better to be informed and engaged than to be less informed and less engaged. And that’s why, when I began working at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997, I was determined to practice what I believe. The more you know, the more engaged you are in your democracy, the better prepared you’ll be to be a citizen, to discriminate among the many arguments whizzing about you in the public sphere. And the better your criticism of those arguments both when you agree and when you disagree will be. The essence of being a good citizen (and, guess what?, a good poet!) is being a willing, informed consumer of argument.
In the political sphere, I keep telling people there’s a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. I think it’s good to be skeptical. You should expect proof from any important claim. That’s what skepticism is: A respectful stance that requests demonstration. That’s the stance an adult should adopt in a democracy. You should be skeptical. You should seek the whole underpinning of an argument.
Cynicism, however, is negative. Cynicism is a bias and a prejudice. It assumes that things people do and say are, in the end, nasty.
For one thing, this, as I said, is a prejudice. You’ve made up your mind, and nothing can shake you. So no matter who or what comes before you, one idea fits all. For another thing, cynicism is lazy. If the cynic, just for a moment, admitted that people can surprise you, one can be different from another, some people are good, others less good if the cynic for a moment admitted that, he or she would be committing him or herself to the work of staying open for each person who comes before them, each argument. Which is what you should be, but what the cynic, slamming down the intellectual portcullis, never is.
Besides which, cynics believe something that is simply not true. Doesn’t accord with the facts. There are qualitative, moral differences among people and among their motives and actions. It’s toxic not to assent to this fact. Cynicism amounts to a sour fantasy maintained for convenience and bloody-mindedness alone.
I am no cynic, but I am a very thoroughgoing skeptic. I do my own research. I do my own homework. I try to determine for myself what I think, because to some extent as a person participating in a democracy, I have to stay apart from the persuasion juggernaut, and sooner or later make a commitment to my own choices and understanding.
WRR: You have often written about belief, and you have said you’re drawn to the divine paradox of a divinity that may well be both good and yet have ways that are braided with darkness.
I try to speak directly of the divine as little as possible I wish never to give anyone the impression that somehow I “know what God is.” Instead, I prefer to speak of the way my relationship with the divine strikes me. The divine is very real to me. The Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit the holy breath, the hagia pneuma: to me, it seems that I am riding it and it’s in me and outside of me. I am pervaded, and that pervasion is the condition of my possibility. And also the condition of my suffering, of my disappointments and failures. My pain. That, too. I must say that the notion of a “problem of evil” doesn’t speak to me. Things are the way they are, and the problem is ours as in how we’re going to react to the way things are. Evil and good froth on the same spacetime frame. It’s distressing, frightening. Yet everything that has to do with beauty, truth, love is there, too.
By the same token, the divine resides also in violence. One might find that disturbing. It’s not that I love violence; it’s just that I see an element of the divine in the worst things that we do and that may strike people as an irony, as an unacceptable paradox.
You find it in the Bhagavad-Gita, indeed one of the wisest, frankest presentations of this notion in human literature. The main character, Arjuna, is the ultimate warrior. In the beginning of that poem, Arjuna is sitting on his chariot, saying, “I do not want to fight,” even though this is the morning of the climactic battle in the war between Good and Evil. And Krsna is telling Arjuna, “You have to go out today and do something absurd. You have to go out and fight in the battle, and in this battle you will kill your relatives, your sacred teachers, the best of kings and warriors, the people who brought you up. You will do some of the worst crimes imaginable. But you will do so in service of the Divine.”
True, if Arjuna fights well (and eventually, he does), the side of Good will win (and it does). It does so at a terrible cost, with one side wiped out and the side of Good all but wiped out. Much of this makes little sense not from our perspective, not from Arjuna’s. And the poem very clearly lets the reader know it doesn’t make the kind of sense we usually are looking for. Part of the message of the Bhagavad-Gita is that senselessness is woven into the fabric of being. We’re not being realists unless we accept both the fact of God and the fact of senselessness. We should love, worship, and abandon ourselves to the divine will even though within that will there is much that is frightening, disappointing, dismaying, angering, and defeating. It’s simply the way the world works.
Chapter 11, which I translated for Wild River Review, changes right in the middle. We experience the “crease” to this point, we’ve been turning and turning in the most glorious, beautiful, universal splendor. And we see the God that we’ve been told is out there. And then it changes Arjuna begins to scream and asks for the vision to be taken away. It is a vision of ultimate horror, destruction. Yet this is truth, too.
The “abyss” of the existentialists is only a seeming; I tend toward the Zen/Taoist belief in the still nothingness that pierces everything. Nor is nothingness nihilistic or annihilating. The sadness and terror of the existentialists is, I believe, wrong. Sartre insists on it, says it’s inevitable and even brave. Nah. I understand it as the calm eye of truth, what is, what’s all we’ve got. When the existentialists peer into what they call the abyss and feel this nightmare terror, I have to wonder whether they really know what they are looking at it’s your mother, your origin, your childhood, the fertile mystery of totality.
Christ, in his metaphors of Alpha and Omega, is playing fruitfully with these notions. “Do not worry about what you shall wear,” and so forth. Christ, in Luke and Matthew, also assents to the violence within the calm eye of truth. Matthew 10 and Luke 12 have it: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father,” and so forth. Not that he was espousing social chaos or violent revolution. Just that he knew that even love is destructive.
Love is what we have to work for. It’s the ultimate, not only because it binds us to people, but also because it transcends us. Christ, as the great poet of transcendence, doesn’t have to say very much. He is a great master of the indirect and the implied. I agree with Joseph Campbell that you might not have everything of Christ in the New Testament, but you have the essentials. Christ thought of himself as a Jew, but a Jew who was expanding the vision, in a Jewish way, using Judaism against Judaism, since his teachings are based on questioning, not on dogma: “You have heard that the law is X, but I say to you that Y.” It’s based on the law so part of it is juridical, and but isn’t legalistic: much of it is based on questioning the law, specific laws, looking for justice that transcends legality. That’s a central part of Christ’s message.
WRR: Can you talk about transcendence in the context of poetry?
Poetry brings us to transcendence. To be a poet, you don’t have to be a believer, but you have to think you’re reaching past ordinary ways of communicating and experience toward something bigger than you, some transcendent sense: the ultimate nature of reality; the resonance of childhood throughout life; new connections that have remained unseen, silenced, or under-recognized; new ways of thinking, new points of view; the dumfounding reverberations of the beautiful; the permanence of suffering.
Perhaps, when I say “the transcendent,” I may be dovetailing with the writer who seeks the authentic voice of the non-conscious. Many poets try to sidle past the censor-in-consciousness, to tap the fountaining, differently-organized unconscious source of images, rhythms, connections, and meanings. This is another way of understanding the notion of the transcendent. If you’re not a believer, this Freudian or post-Freudian view of the unconscious/transcendent is comforting because all of it begins and ends with us; there’s no divine component. It does have its own magic, its own uncanniness. For many, plumbing these depths is the closest we come to miracle. I fully honor that, and I hope I have recapitulated this point of view fairly.
Many poets try to shut the censor and let the spine, so to speak, write what it wants. Allen Ginsberg and his Buddhist guru Chongyam Trongpa concocted the “First thought, best thought” idea, seizing the first thing that leaps into your brain and jamming that into the poem. Hey, sometimes it works great. I do that and so does everyone. John Ashbery started doing something similar when, in the late 1960s, he started writing the way we’ve become familiar with him. He had always written a single, urbane, ironic poetry, but after the late 1960s, a lot of his poetry sounds as though somebody turned off the top of the brain and let the spinal column speak. It’s very associational, different voices. It often seems to lack a topic or shape because that’s not the way the unconscious world works. And what may surprise some folks is what Ashbery has said in several interviews: “I’m open to the notion that God’s involved here.”
And the “language poets,” with their zigs, zags, associations, and startling juxtapositions, often seem to be channeling this unorganizable, nonconscious source.
I love poetry in which the poet is going in a new direction, knows it, doesn’t know quite what it is, but is still willing to go there. I think of poems such as T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Kit Smart’s poetry, Blake, Susan Howe, Mallarmˇ. In the same way, I love music in which the musicians don’t know where they are and have gone in new directions. The music of composer John Adams is like that: exploratory, pioneering. I’m a big fan of Mozart, and I think Mozart within his idiom is like that. He’s always doing things that are telling you, “I bet you can’t you do this. I bet you haven’t thought of it his way.” He’s always playing with you, saying, “Oh, yeah? You think you’re great? Ha!” He’s always trying to push into new directions within the admittedly constrictive parameters of classical Western music. These things were occurring to him as he wrote, yet he was incredibly disciplined. He had to be writing right from the spine. He had to be dredging it up and putting it right on the page.
Almost all of jazz is that way and much of the pop music of the 1960s and 1970s is like that. The Beatles didn’t know what they were doing. Led Zeppelin didn’t know. Stevie Wonder didn’t know. Joni Mitchell didn’t know. Milton Nacimento didn’t know. They just followed it where it led.
And, OK, let me say: my experience of what is so glibly called “the creative process” strikes me as directly mystical. The songwriter Jackson Browne once told me he didn’t know where it came from, and that though he was not a believer, “if anything was going to make me believe in God, that would.” Well said! Another pop writer, Michael McDonald, talked about the process of writing that splendid tune “What a Fool Believes,” an incredibly complex, surprisingly structured little pop gem he wrote with Kenny Loggins. And McDonald has said repeatedly, “At some point, it’s God. That’s what’s going on.” Well said. I take both the Freudian/secularist notion of it (that we always are channeling our nonconscious sources) and the mystical. Why think there’s a difference? Every time you start a poem or a song or any artwork, instantly you’ve set loose a bunch of little problems. And over the years, as you walk down the street, all them problems are getting turned this way and that somewhere in you. Right this moment, as I sit here, I can feel about 30 started poems and almost as many tunes, and all their assorted problems, and part of me is beavering away on all of them. I can hear the squirrels nibbling in the walls.
But when a problem is solved, that moment approaches apotheosis. There was one poem I had started back in the 1970s, and I just couldn’t solve this one crux in it. For 20 years and more, if I let myself think about it too much, it’d drive me crazy. I tried all sorts of solutions, and none of them worked. And then one day, I sat down on the stairs to put my sneakers on and the knot came undone. In a way completely unexpected, something new, an approach I certainly had never attempted anywhere before. And it was right. It was so much like being handed something, and by a voice totally other than my own, that I ain’t touchin’ that. You got another explanation? I respect it; go for it. Me, I know what I think.
Jazz is another great example where you played the “head,” and now you’re in the middle and now it’s time to solo. The thing about soloing is you’re not supposed to do anything you’ve done before. You’re not supposed to be doing anything that anyone else did before. There are certain rules, and you’re supposed to break them all. Good luck. Jazz soloing is as close as you can come as close as I have come to the experience of writing a poem. It is terrifying because you do not know where you’re going to be in two seconds. You might try something, and part of that decision is made at the physical level in other words, your body decides to do certain things. Part of the decision-making process is mental but remember, in music this is all split-second, split-split second choice-making, so quickly that what we usually mean by the word choice can’t really apply. Some very complex choices happen in a snap. You think, “This song is in G major, so I’ll try E flat major, or maybe G Phrygian.” Even though some notes will sound wrong initially, I can create sonic contexts around them that will let them sound right. Such decisions allow me and the band to break out of the old major/minor straightjacket and explore new combinations. And those are instantaneous decisions, decisions that draw from many of the same resources you draw from in creating poetry. And all musicians know the feeling of hearing something they’ve recorded later and thinking, “Wow, where did that come from?” I just finished a CD of my songs with a band called Car Radio Dog, and there are a couple of flute solos I can stand to listen to, and a few of them bring that question to me. Most of my poems do.
In poetry, you’ll choose a word, a phrase, a conceit, an approach that may be very different, may undermine what you personally know or believe. It will disturb you. And you’ll start thinking about yourself. You’ll think, “God, am I a terrible person? I don’t really believe this thing I just wrote down, this thing my poem is now treating as a law of existence.” But as you go forward you realize that the choice is right or inevitable. That’s the choice that should be there. It has nothing to do with what you want.
Which, now that I think of it, really is transcendence. The poem transcends the poet. So does the solo.
Here’s another way to think of the transendence aspect. Part of the discipline of poetry is that mixture of control and release. The release can make use of the control, and the control can respond to the release. Let me try another metaphor: salsa dancing. In salsa, the male makes all the initial decisions, but the woman, once she follows where she is pointed, makes that decision her own. She gives it a resolution, a destination, a final meaning. So neither man nor woman is actually the leader. Salsa is an image of the way men and women should be together. At one or another time you will lead or follow, but always with the understanding that leaders follow and followers lead, with the readiness to switch roles and to recognize different ideas. I wish more men knew the secret in following by leading because it’s true: many women often expect men to lead in this sense to offer a way to do or see things that the two can share, not as a categorical this-way-and-no-other, but a loving offering of an idea, a possibility. Men should understand: You make a decision that helps, and then follow what your female friends make of that. You have to let them guide you with their reaction to what you do.
Leaders follow. Followers lead. Those who control, release. And those who release, control. This doesn’t seem that mystical to me. Every poet must know this.
WRR: Can you talk about your experience with the Templeton Foundation?
The Templeton Foundation was founded by Sir John Templeton, who pioneered the globally diversified mutual fund. And his son Jack Templeton is one of the major administrators of it. Every year the Templeton Foundation awards the world’s single largest prize, in terms of the size of the award, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, to the person they think has done the most to rapproche science and religion.
(Wild River Review recently featured an interview with Physicist Freeman Dyson, contributor to Quark Park, and winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2000.)
I was encouraged by my bosses to apply for the very first 2005 Templeton/Cambridge fellowships for journalism in science and religion, which are two of my editorial beats at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My bosses and I had a big discussion about the ethics of applying for this fellowship because, to tell you the truth, John and his son are known to be big Intelligent Design fans. That doesn’t mean their foundation is biased. But we didn’t want to be seen as supporting ID not because we are either for or against it, but because we were afraid it might compromise our public credibility if we ever had to report on the Templetons or on Intelligent Design (which, by the way, I did right after I returned from the Templetons, in fact and the fellowship very much bolstered and empowered my reporting and writing on this issue). But we decided, I should apply, I did, and to my shock and amazement, got it. I went to Cambridge with ten journalists, eight Americans, and two English.
Some were freelancers like George Johnson, a wonderful, pellucid writer, I love his books, and you’ll see his reviews in Scientific American, the New York Times, and elsewhere. Also John Horgan, who is now Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey; John is doing a great blog, “Horganism,” for Discover online (http://discovermagazine.typepad.com/horganism/). Other fellow Temps included Shankar Vedantam, who writes about science for the Washington Post, and a former colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, there were Barbara Haggerty, religion correspondent for NPR; Michael Brooks, a writer for the English magazine New Scientist; and Martin Redfern, science correspondent for BBC.
During the first two weeks, we attended an intensive series of seminars. For hours and hours, some pretty great thinkers on science and on religious topics trooped through, like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker; Simon Conway-Morris, an evolutionary zoologist and biologist, who has written books including The Aim of Life; and John Barrow, one of the most eminent cosmologists in the world. We had Margaret Boden, a leading theorist in the field of artificial intelligence. We had theologians, including Russell Stannard, who has written a lot about science and religion.
We discussed where some of the sciences are right now, especially cosmology, biology, and physics. In physics, it’s a very wonderful, very vexing place right now. We are at the same place with quantum physics now that we were with Newtonian physics in 1905. In 1905, Newtonian physics, which had described the universe persuasively for more than a century, was failing to describe certain observed phenomena. For example, there’s the “oven problem.” How much energy would it take to heat an oven of a given size to, say, 450 degrees Fahrenheit? Using standard Newtonian assumptions about the nature of energy, you get an infinite answer, and you know that’s not right. That breakdown led to Einstein’s work with spacetime, and to the development of quantum mechanics. But in the last 40 years, we’ve begun to come to a brick wall even with quantum accounts of the universe.
And that’s frustrating, because we are fairly close to having a Theory of Everything an equation that embraces the way things behave in the universe. There are a couple of things we are having a heck of a time with. One is spacetime. We don’t know what it is, really, or how it behaves, though there’s a bunch of fascinating theories out there. (One is quantum loop physics, which sees the tiniest particles of existence as being made of different knots, so to speak, of spacetime.)
And the real head-scratcher is gravity. The Theories of Relativity but forth by Einstein in 1905 include an account of gravity as a curvature of space. Only we have so far failed to come up with a quantum account of gravity that all scientists accept. It’s very hard to study gravity. With planets and suns and things, very large objects, gravity is pretty strong, but at the level of you and me it’s actually pretty weak. At the level of insect life, gravity is less of a factor than, say, surface tension in water. Gravity is so weak that it has only rarely been studied in settings of less than a tenth of a centimeter and for physics studies, that is simply mammoth.
We haven’t found a graviton a particle that imparts gravity, as a photon does for light. We have not yet persuasively observed a gravitational wave (although I think experiments are coming up that will find one). It must propagate somehow because we know it does. But there’s a bigger problem in that there is no quantum account of general relativity. You can’t use quantum mechanics to talk about how general relativity works because we don’t know enough about gravity. This is where string theory comes from. String theory arose in the 1970s as an attempt to explain things quantum mechanics can’t. String theory has produced some of the most astonishing forays in symbolic language, the most dazzling cerebrations ever attempted. In the mid 1980s, some of the prime designers of string theory put forth a Theory of Everything a single equation for the physical laws of the cosmos. You can buy T-shirts that have it as a logo.
Alas, two decades later, we still don’t know whether the equation is true or not.
Whereas you normally think of the tiniest things in the universe as particles, string theory asks, “What if particles are just a manifestation of one-dimensional string-like structures that resonate at a certain frequency?” The theorists have been able to elaborate an explanation of the behavior of just about all the known subatomic particles with this approach. Actually, you have a bunch of string theories these days, many of them featuring up to 10 or 11 extra dimensions.
But, as of 2005, the whole thing had a train wreck. It was as if a bunch of different geniuses in several parts of the world let out a howl: WAIT A MINUTE!!! They asked, and with good reason: “What is this stuff? What do we have, really?” There’s precious little experimental proof of string theory. It hasn’t done exceptionally well at predicting things, which is what a theory should do they’ve had some successes with the physics of black holes, but right now, hmmm, the track record is a little sketchy. We have the experimental means to detect particles down to, say, 10 times the power of negative sixteen - and we need to get down about 17 more orders of magnitude before we could hope to test string theory directly, and that’s a few years off yet.
And it’s not even clear what the theory is about. Yes, it’s supposed to be about how the universe behaves. But recall: this theory is almost all math. It takes off from quantum physics and reasons from there but it’s mostly a creation of such reasoning. What if string theory is only a theory of how you’d have to think if you wanted to go beyond quantum mechanics? Yikes!
So all sorts of people are engaged in asking new questions about the nature of the universe. We did a lot of that at the Templetons. My conclusion is that science and religion are not really commensurate, although they do address similar questions. And both have their sketchy aspects. Science and rationalism don’t really get at the origins thing the Big Bang is not our origin. If it happened, it’s not the beginning, which hurts my brain to say. And religion has a lot of bad stuff to answer for including much of U.S. domestic politics since the mid 1980s, when so-called Christian conservatism became a formidable political movement.
My main interest, which profited greatly from the fellowship, was to look into the future, at all the ethical issues that soon will arise as technology advances, and ask: “How can science and religion collaborate to help us address these issues before they’re on top of us?” Because it is in this realm the coming ethical challenges of scientific and technological innovation in genetics and neurobiology that science and religion will have to, have to talk to each other and collaborate. I am still doing that in my work. On December 10, I published a piece asking whether E.O. Wilson’s project a collaboration between science and religion on behalf of saving the Earth could work. My answer is I think it can but the churches must organize, lead, stir up their congregations to take social action and elect candidates who will change policy. Somehow the environmental movement and the potentially decisive role of religious communities in it hasn’t really crested the hill. So who’s gonna step up?
WRR: Is it my imagination? Are people getting smarter?
We have more geniuses per square foot in the world today than ever in the history of humankind. And that is a triumph of education. There are communities of people who gather together around the world, via the Internet, lots of ways, who are thinking at a very high level on behalf of humanity. I just love the Web site named Edge (http://www.edge.com), which assembles the best minds in the world and sics them on the biggest questions, to arrive at the edge of what can be thought. We have an incredible, unprecedented generation of scientists. And your heart has to go out to some of these folks, the string theorists, for example. They’ve come to a brick wall and are trying to figure their way around it they can smell Canaan but may not be the ones to get there. Me, I’d be very happy when we find a complete account of the material universe, a materialist account of human consciousness, a final understanding of spacetime, gravity, and the origin and fate of life and the cosmos. It may not happen in my lifetime. But, so much has happened in my lifetime, I shouldn’t complain.
WRR: What about other fields?
Well, in biology you’re having a golden age of unprecedented variety and richness. Scientists are finding out so much about evolution, genomics, the surprisingly vast world of living species. Neurobiology is a field that is about to explode. We really are on the verge of yet another set of world-renovating discoveries. We’re very far away from this as of the moment, but someday, as mentioned, we well may find out the biological (and that means material) basis of consciousness. Really, in all of science, that’s the Golden Fleece such a discovery would be even more momentous than a completed Theory of Everything in cosmology.
And there’s another explosion in the materials sciences. We know more about how the universe works, so now, if we want to make a material that has particular properties, we often can design it. And that leads to nanotechnology, extremely tiny, tiny engineering, so that we can create infinitesimally small machines that can, for example, be injected into the body to do surgery or dispense hormones or drugs. All of these advances bring with them ethical issues, too.
WRR: Where is Religion in all of this?
Religion is in a strange place. For the first couple hundred years of science’s existence, religion was the reason it existed. The church encouraged science because scientists (for the most part) saw themselves as explaining how God worked. And now we’re in a much different situation because, from a literalist/rationalist standpoint, you don’t need God to be in the world to explain the world.
Religion, as mentioned, has been and can be a horribly destructive thing. There’s an argument that maybe what we should do for the next step of humanity is do away with it. So we have Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith. We have the efforts of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Frederick Crews. It’s a high-water mark for the popular attack on faith, and as a religious person, I must say I completely understand and respect it. I hold no brief for the depredations done in the name of belief. None.
As mentioned, these days religion has very little to say to science, but science has had much to say to religion. There are certain ways of visualizing God that can’t be right. And science shows you that. For instance, it took much more than six days six of our days, anyway to create the universe. The cosmos is simply a lot more than 6,000 years old. Deal with it! On the other hand, that doesn’t mean there is no God. It may, however, mean that the divine that does exist isn’t the one we expected, or would have ordered up if it were up to us. See the Bhagavad-Gita for that.
WRR: What about Fundamentalism?
Fundamentalism within any belief system is the insistence that only a small number of definitely, strictly defined things constitute truly authentic belief. “You must believe these things and only these any defect or deviation, and you’re not the real thing.” By this definition, there are fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and materialist/rationalist atheists, too, quite fundamentalist.
Here’s the problem: Fundamentalism can’t be correct. It certainly can’t be correct for science-based empiricist/rationalist/materialists because (a) philosophically and semantically speaking, we haven’t completely figured out what we mean by material, though, to be sure, we have a pretty vigorous ballpark notion; and (b) because fundamentalism says, “Stop” when science keeps saying, “Go, go, go” science’s understanding keeps growing whereas fundamentalism, as a habit of mind, wants to plant its flag and go no further. Science often proceeds by revising and erasing previous science, anyway so the proper attitude should never be that science has it all wrapped up, or can confidently be limited to a single, small set of practices. But such provisionalism is toxic for the fundamentalist.
And y’know, fundamentalism can’t be correct for religion, either. It’s always wrong. The Christianity I was raised in (and I hope I practice, but that’s for someone else to judge) counsels tolerance, open-mindedness, and acceptance of difference, diversity, and disagreement. Religion grows and grows, too; it has to step up to face the challenges of a world that’s changing at a faster and faster pace. Fundamentalism says, “Stop,” when the world says, “Grow, grow, grow.” I know a lot of people will hate this view, and I respect their ways of seeing it, but for me, fundamentalism has to be wrong worse in Christianity even than in science.
Some Christian fundamentalists read Genesis to mean that all creation went “Whomp,” instantaneously, here we are, exactly as we are now. You either believe that or you’re not an authentic Christian, in the view of such fundamentalists. So when the theory of evolution comes along, and says, “Well actually it was a process that took millions and millions of years,” these fundamentalists tropistically respond: “Well, then, evolution can’t be right.”
Again and again, strictly fundamentalist religions are going to be challenged by new revelations in science. And both Christian fundamentalism (especially here in the United States) and Muslim fundamentalism have responded to the increasing rate of technological and social change with political aggression and the heart breaks to say this in the case of a few Muslim brigands, terrorism.
Right now, we have fundamentalists pressing from all sides both atheist fundamentalists such as Dawkins and Christian fundamentalists such as Falwell, et al. spouting this extreme, advocatorial, last-ditch rhetoric, and to me, both sides way, way, way exceed the boundaries set out by the very realm they advocate.
While I am completely pro-science, I am not the sort of science advocate who speaks as if science has everything all wrapped up. Reason (however defined and it’s a poorly defined concept) and empirical demonstration are amazingly useful tools, but they’re not the only way human beings solve or live through their problems. Science actually sets its own rules and parameters pretty stiffly. It’s not that science/reason prove there’s no God it’s closer to the point to say that science can’t go there. Darwin told us his theory was a theory of development, not of the origins of life. We have no idea how nucleic acids first developed. From the sterile oceans of the early planet to nucleic acids that’s a huge step. And from there to proteins proteins are these incredibly complex, incredibly unlikely molecules is simply a mind-defeating step. We know it happened, but how . . . for that, all we have are pretty good guesses y’know, soup of nucleic acids, lightning strikes, yee-hah! Life. We don’t know and may never know. Life arose several different times, probably, several different versions. But exactly how it did, no, we don’t know, because we don’t know much about the atmosphere or oceans of ancient Earth.
That’s not a reason to reject Darwin. Darwin rules. I do object to the certainty of people who proclaim that the universe is accidental. There are no scientific experiments to test the accidentality of reality. There certainly are disorder and randomness, but they are separate from the question of accidentality. You could have a planned universe that was a lot sloppier than this one, and an accidental one that was much neater. I fully respect and do not share the worldview of the person who looks around and concludes the universe was accidental, but such a conclusion is not a scientific one. It’s an understandable extrapolation but not either rationally inevitable nor scientifically testable. We are condemned to having good guesses, which is pretty much the segue with the Big Bang.
Using just math you can down to the first 1x10 to the negative 33d power second. Pretty close to what’s known as a Planck time, the smallest measure of time, the distance light can travel in something like a billionth of a second. Still, we have to face it: There are all sorts of questions about the Big Bang that we may not be able to answer. What made the Big Bang bang? What was it that banged? How did it know when to bang?
We don’t know these things for sure. But we do know an awful lot about it. The new discoveries about cosmic background radiation and primeval light have helped us determine that the bang happened around 16 billion years ago, give or take a percent (and that’s a margin of error I’ll take any day!).
And the universe is finely tuned. So finely that a controversy is raging, because if it were any less finely tuned, if it were even a trifle different in its basic relationships, we couldn’t be. The rate of expansion of the universe is exactly on a line between too fast and too slow; people call it the “Goldilocks problem,” as in the porridge being just right. If it expands too slowly, gravity pulls it back down into a Big Crunch, and nothing can exist because it becomes too hot and too dense. If it expands too fast, stars can’t form. And for that reason nothing can exist.
So the universe is expanding at just the right rate. If it were any different, the cosmos as we know it and we who are doing the knowing would not be here. This is a version of what’s called the “anthropic cosmological principle.” Boy, did we hear a lot about that at the Templetons! Too much, if you ask me. Some physicists have dismissed it, as in “Interesting, but we don’t care.” And others will look at it and say, “Well there are religious applications.”
WRR: You mean God?
Personally, as a believer, I don’t need this stuff. I thought what I thought before I ever learned about all this. I am very much enjoying the controversy, though; I have my front row seat and my popcorn and everything.
To some, yes, it does suggest there’s a designing presence behind the cosmos. But let me hasten to say, there’s an immediate philosophical objection you could make: “This is backward reasoning. As in ‘We’re here, so there must be a reason, so we’ll build backward from ourselves to a theory that, yes indeed! shows ourselves to be special.’ Such an argument takes combinations of facts and arranges them into a post hoc argument, all for the sake of a decision you’d already made (that there must be a reason we’re here).” Fair enough.
So to some people the Goldilocks or fine-tuning thing doesn’t suggest anything. At the Templetons, Dawkins gleefully cried, “We won the lottery!” Now, he might be right, and I honor him to the extent of granting that. But his claim is not as strong as he appears to think, and on a couple of grounds. First, it asserts what science cannot, or so far has not, even attempted to prove: the accidentality of everything, which, as mentioned, is at least logically and semantically separable (and I admit this is on an only apparent level) from the questions of disorder and randomness. So the lottery claim rests on a monumentally begged question, for which there is as yet no umpire. Second, when Dawkins makes this assertion, that we won “the lottery,” he actually is not paying enough attention to precision. We didn’t win one lottery. We won an infinite number of them. And only in this one universe. Some theorists believe this universe is only one of 10 to the power of 550 universes. So please, Richard, multiply your infinite number of lotteries by that number. Not that you’re wrong; you could be right. (Have I said that often enough so people understand I realize it? Sure hope so.) But somewhere, someone please admit that, in place of the God thing, you are offering us an explanation that is even less likely, less believable, less probable than heaven. And, note to John Horgan: you might be right. But torque down, for goodness’ sake, on the triumphalist rhetoric. Folks who cry the lottery are making the most arrant, crazy-ass-arrogant of claims. Arrant because excessive, and arrogant because they assume a privilege they do not in fact have. It’s a claim that far exceeds the brief of either reason or science, completely resistant to empirical demonstration, yet setting that up as an obvious riposte, when it’s far from it. It amounts to a breezy dismissal, not an explanation, but a refusal to explain or to acknowledge the limits of explanation.
For obvious reasons, that strikes a lot of people as a cop out. Including some physicists, who say, “Well, we should be the guys to investigate these questions” meaning the fine-tuning thing. “We shouldn’t just give up and say, ‘We won the lottery.’”
A lot of the string theorists say the anthropic thing is trying to explain something that’s meaningless. I find that perfectly understandable. And yet I certainly don’t know enough about the physics to have a seat at this table, except to maybe write an article about it, but I will report this many physicists think that these are questions worthy of investigation. They, too, are simply not satisfied with the brush-off that says, without feeling one needs to demonstrate it, that we are just an accident. Such assertions why not just admit it? remain in the province of personal philosophy, passionate guessing, aesthetic feeling and not science.
Fertile ground for discussion, and that’s what the journalists and scientists did for two weeks at Cambridge. Most of us were skeptics and felt that religion is claptrap, and science is the way to go even though they know there are lots of problems with science.
We talked and argued for two weeks, and during that time, I couldn’t sleep. I was buzzing with ideas. I’d fall asleep; wake up at two. I’d pour myself some wine and read. Or I’d see if any of us were similarly walking around (because many of us were). Then we went home for five weeks and we were supposed to make our own presentations and then we came back.
WRR: How did the fellowship translate into your work in the world?
I plan to initiate a series of community dialogues between people of science and people of faith. Not because I want to make scientists more religious, or religious people more scientific. I just want the two sides to know more about each other, speak to one another, and feel there has been a public forum in which they’ve gotten some airtime. That’s what democracy is about.
It makes sense to me that as a newspaper writer, I see a connection among my journalism, my science, and my attempts at poetry. They’re efforts to make sense of community and the world at large; efforts at realization. Journalism begins and ends with that sense I spoke of, a sense that people live together and try to make decisions together a sense that it really is better to be engaged and informed than not. Connection, baby! Science and poetry show us that we’re totally connected in ways about which we haven’t got a clue.
I’m excited about what will happen in science over the next twenty years. It’s helped me understand the human predicament in new ways. It’s given me so much to want to write about. I’m interested in everything, and now I realize there’s much more of everything than I thought.