Saturday, November 22, 2003

November 22, 1914

I suppose once you become aware of an historical date, you may be likely to notice other events that occur on that date. Nevertheless, it so happened that today, on the day I posted my 40th anniversary remembrance of JFK and his assassination (on my Blue Voice blog, eventually to be archived under November 22, 2003), I happened to read a book in which the central event happens on another November 22.

Even though it was in Berlin during World War I, what happened on this November 22 is quite different in many ways. It was an intensely private event, involving only one person. Its significance was not completely understood for a long time, even by that person. But the author of the book in question, Brian Swimme, considers it to be one of the most important dates in the twentieth century, perhaps in human history.

Swimme is writing not about geopolitics or culture, but cosmology, in The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, first published in 1996. For Swimme, "cosmology is the story of the birth, development, and destiny of the universe, told with the aim of assisting humans in their task of identifying their roles within the great drama....Science is not the same as cosmology, even when a cosmology is deeply informed by science" which Swimme's is. Which is why that date is important. For what happened on November 22, 1914 happened in the study of Albert Einstein.

According to Swimme, this was the night that Einstein made the calculations that would result in his General Theory of Relativity, which changed how science viewed the universe at least as profoundly as Copernicus, Galileo or Newton. But, Swimme says, those calculations implied a picture of the universe Einstein himself did not accept, and so he essentially fudged part of his theory by adding what he called the cosmological constant. With it, the universe was essentially unchanging. But without it, his figures showed that the universe is expanding.

Eventually of course that became the standard view, though Swimme makes a convincing case that its meaning is still poorly understood. Swimme is a maverick among scientists, but he is a remarkable clear writer with a gift for visualizations and narrative. So this short book is a mind-opening journey that makes a particular case for Einstein's insight as leading to revelations of an "omnicentric universe" (where everywhere is the center and origin of the universe), in which creation and destruction happen everywhere at every moment, in the universe as "all-nourishing abyss."

Swimme helps you swim up this tough stream of consciousness with remarkable images, like imagining the universe as a loaf of bread baking in the oven, and you on a raisin in the bread, which is also the planet earth. I didn't understand all of this on first reading, but I got a lot. For instance, I felt a more profound sense of what an expanding universe really means (for it's not just that stars are rushing outward, but so is time and space itself.)

He actually starts off with riffs on consumerism and the overwhelming brainwashing effects of advertising (teens spend more time watching commercials than in their total time in high school) but with an intriguing and appropriate point: corporate advertising creates our common cosmology. It prejudices our minds in certain ways: what explanations we value and accept or can even understand. He contrasts this with the experiences of young people in traditional indigenous cultures and their initiation into a different kind of cosmology.

The connection is in reducing the universe to matter, which limits our ability to appreciate what Einstein and other physicists and scientists in other fields, as well as indigenous cultures, are telling us about our universe, and our place in it. We're stuck not just in a Newtonian mind-set, but a fig Newtonian one. A cosmology based on a picture of the universe based on new science, Swimme writes, would mean that "young people educated in the new cosmology will experience the Moon not as a frozen lump but as an event that trembles into existence each moment."

He brings it all back to Einstein: "this chunk of the Milky Way jotted down the dynamics of the Milky Way." (Where neither is a candy bar.) What links Einstein to the Arapaho is the understanding that everything in the universe is alive, including the universe itself, and we are all inextricably part of it, and of each other.

No comments: