Friday, January 2, 2015

Into That Good Night

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night.
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.
Alexander Pope

Some may find it odd that my first post of 2015 is about a movie released nearly two months ago and perhaps nearing the end of its run in major theatres.  Those who make it through to the end of this post, and who know me, will perhaps not think it so strange.

This post is an attempt for me to grasp the physics-poem that is Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.  For 169 minutes, I sat with my eyes wide open, riveted to the unfolding of the mysteries of reality in cinematic metaphor.  Click the link above and head over to IMDB for the synopsis, but know that multiple dimensions, quantum physics, and the beautiful strangeness of space-time are breathtakingly imagined on screen.

In 1994 I was a graduate student in Classics at The University of Texas.  My wife and I had gone to Barton Creek Square Mall, and as was my habit, I headed to the bookstore.  I ended up with CUNY physics professor Michio Kaku's book Hyperspace in my hands, and my life very nearly took a significant turn.  I read a good portion of the book while standing in the bookstore, and when my wife insisted we must leave, I purchased the book and began babbling all the way home about quantum physics and a possible change of graduate work.  Kaku's book led me to everything from Dali's Corpus Hypercubus to Edwin Abbott's Flatland to a Caltech physicist named Kip Thorne, who had published an article about the possibility of time travel.  This sent me running to the physics, math, and astronomy library at U.T. to find the article (I think it was "Wormholes in Spacetime and Their Use for Interstellar Travel:  A Tool for Teaching General Relativity," American Journal of Physics, 56, 395-416, 1988), and suddenly I could think of nothing else but superstrings and multiple dimensions.

Corpus Hypercubus, Dali, 1954, oil-on-canvas
How does a person describe what it is like to catch a glimpse into the possible physical structure of reality?  As I lacked a sufficient physics and mathematics background to do so, one of my few true and deep life regrets, I ended up staying with Classics, a choice I have never regretted.  Still, as Pope famously cautioned, one must be careful of drinking from the Pierian spring.  Once I had sipped this particular elixir of the Muses, I returned numerous times for longer draughts, always savoring certain aspects of physics through metaphor if not through mathematics.

Then came Interstellar.  It was everything I experienced in a Texas bookstore twenty years ago, but brought to life, or as close to life as a three-dimensional representation of the fourth dimension of time can be on a two-dimensional screen.  And as the credits rolled, whose name should appear?  Executive producer Kip Thorne.

So why am I really blogging about this?  The film makes repeated use of Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and for a variety of reasons that would take too long to explore here.  Yet one reason must surely be to push against the dark boundaries of ignorance.  There is so much that we have yet to learn...about everything.  That is what drives me, the unbridled desire and passion to learn.  The darkness in which lies hidden all that we do not know is not a bad darkness.  It is a good night, for it undoubtedly contains much truth, goodness, and beauty, and it is into that good night I am eager to lead my students on our shared journey of discovery.


While I welcome thoughts relevant to discussions of education, comments that are vulgar, insulting, or in any way inappropriate will be deleted.