Sunday, October 9, 2011

Big Bang and the Velocity of Words

Driving back to Sacramento after dinner with friends in San Francisco, I heard a story on National Public Radio by Aimee Bender that sticks in my mind. I’ve tried to find it on the NPR Web site, but it doesn’t come up, so I can’t offer a link. Believe me, I’ve tried every search term I can think of, but it’s gone into the ether. (If you find a link, let us know, post in comments.)

The story was about the origin of the universe, where we came from. The premise of the story is discussions with an eminent astral scientist who basically explains the “Big Bang” theory to skeptical students—using sock puppets and a suitcase. The story was at once charming and seemingly an accurate explanation of current scientific theories.

The idea is that somewhere beyond 14 billion years ago, a place we cannot find and do not know, a suitcase-like envelope burst and molecules spewed everywhere all at once. Since then they, (the molecules, the universe as we know it) have been expanding—at a slower, cooler rate—but expanding nonetheless. We’re moving away from each other, losing our original natal cluster that was originally fostered by heat and agitation.

Georges Lemaître
Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics proposed the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in a 1927 paper. It started scientific tongues wagging around the world. He called it his "hypothesis of the primeval atom.”

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the distances to far away galaxies were generally proportional to their redshifts—an idea originally suggested by Lemaître in 1927. Hubble's observation was that all very distant galaxies and clusters have an apparent velocity directly away from our vantage point: the farther away, the higher the apparent velocity.

If the distance between galaxy clusters is increasing today, everything must have been closer together in the past. Even us, who are, if you follow this theory, nothing more than a ragbag collection of molecules moving away from each other and rapidly losing heat, facing a future of carbon decay, charcoal at the end of a long Sunday barbecue.

The great Irish/English short story writer William Trevor said something like: I write stories and put them away. I go back to them, sometimes years later, and see if they still have heat, a spark I can work with and then I set about polishing them. He said that’s how he knew when he had a story worth working on.

In an interview that appeared in the Paris Review, Trevor said: Short stores are the “art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth.” (A big bang?)

When authors are asked where story ideas come from—what sparked a particular story—the answer is usually some windy variation of “they come from everywhere all at once.” (Like the universe?)

The thing that differentiates a great poem from one that’s not so good, poet Dorothea Lasky wrote in her essay “Poetry is not a project” is a poem’s capacity to exist in the uncertain external world where anything and everything is moving away from us all at once and it folds into the intense (heated) world of the individual.

“In this moment, the issues of self become one with the universe,” Lasky wrote.

So, I thought these things last night, hurtling up Interstate 80, past Vallejo, Fairfield and Vacaville, past harvested fields and overly illuminated auto dealers, past outlet malls and golden arches, following the red taillights in front of me, chasing the light molecules going everywhere all at once, heading home. I thought about moving farther away from the friends I’ve known since my days at George Washington High School, thought about their heated personal stories becoming universal—explosions of astral truth in the faces of people I've known nearly all my life.

I was thinking about gravitational forces when the CHP pulled me over in Davis, I explained I was only going 85 mph, cooling, but still expanding, spinning in my own orbit. The officer checked my expanding pupils, sniffed my soberly exhaled molecules, let me off with a warning, called me "ma'am."

Thanks for visiting, have a great week. If you want to talk, you'll find me in the garden, busy with fall pruning, come around back.