Monday, July 16, 2012

I read recently how scientists had run an experiment that proved at last that some particle could move faster than the speed of light, it was all over the Internet, and the next day at work my colleague, who actually can think about these things in intelligent ways, explained with great animation how this opened the way for science to be thinking about parallel universes, and his excitement touched me for a few minutes, I caught some glimmer of how the one thing related to the other. But truth be told, I lost that thread almost directly, and, given how theoretically important a thing it was that was being proposed, it’s rather amazing how little I’ve thought of it since—I haven’t—and how on the scale of personal mattering (the only scale I trust) it doesn’t begin to generate the awe I felt the first time I saw the dust of metal filings on a sheet of paper rally to order when a magnet came near, or how baking soda added to vinegar propelled a cork out of its bottle and halfway across the kitchen . . . Nothing trumps the first science, I don’t think. Indeed—general rule—nothing trumps the first anything. Science. I remember those portable chemistry sets with their neatly racked test tubes and flasks, and store-bought kits that in the right hands would have picked up radio signals from cities around the world, and microscopes with their silver adjusting screws and slide-holding clasps, the little mirror you had to angle into the light to get a sudden eyeful of the honeybee’s shockingly hairy leg . . . Maybe it was my eyesight, already bad, I don’t know, but for all my professed interest in nature back then—at one point I was determined to be a naturalist—I did not finally put in much time at all squinting toward the mysteries of minutiae. Nor, truth be told, was I one for going to the planetarium to see the stars and planets or stand in line on special viewing occasions to gape at the rings of Saturn. That magnitude of inspection did not compel me—which should have told me I was a humanist. Indeed, whenever I had a pair of binoculars or, better, a telescope, my interest—unflagging—was for watching people who did not know they were being observed. Voyeurism, yes—but not really. My lens never found the lamp-lit window with its curtain blown sideways just as the game of games was about to begin. Not once. I had better luck bringing in the back of the paint-speckled T-shirt of the guy painting his gutters, or watching the unsuspecting neighbor mom heft up her grocery bags and kick the car door shut with the toe of her loafer. Is that voyeurism? If so, it is of a pale and unactionable sort. Less actionable still might be the voyeurism I practiced on birds and cats, or even just space itself. Truth be told, that last was maybe the most exciting. Not for anything viewed, but precisely because, not having anything special to focus on, I could contemplate the fact of the device itself. It was, as I recollect, a neatly collapsed item about the size of a burrito. Small enough to fit into the front pocket of my jacket—which, I will say, was part of its appeal, the other part being that I could quickly and with a few gratifyingly decisive moves pull section from section, snap snap, elongating, until I had a device worthy of old-time sea captains. This I could hold up to my eye, a way to instantly make there come here, an astonishing trick—truly—though it will never be as good as getting then to be now.

Sunday, July 1, 2012