Review and Comment: To Get Past the Surface
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
There is something ever beyond our reach. How did it all begin? Religions have their answers, scientists say the Big Bang. But was there ever a nothingness? What existed before God or gods, before the Big Bang? John Keats, a great poet fated not to live long, was tormented by time and eternity. In one poem he finally had to satisfy himself with this: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In a sonnet near the end, he rued, “… then on the shore/ Of the wide world I stand alone and think/ Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”
Robert Frost, the best known American poet of the 20th century if not one of the more experimental (he complained that free verse was like “playing tennis with the net down”), distrusted humanity’s endless quest to get to the bottom of it all. At an informal session with a small group of college students that I was part of, Frost took issue with science, quoting from Shakespeare that love “is the star to every wandering bark,/ Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” Science could measure the dimensions of the ship, Frost contended, but it could not get at its essence.
So, do we have to content ourselves with making the most of love and beauty, and letting the ultimate questions go unanswered — or do we keep trying to answer them? In the May 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg laments that Congress back in 1993 canceled funding for the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, after almost two billion dollars had been spent on that gigantic circumferential tunnel that would have accelerated protons at three times the maximum energy available from the CERN Large Hadron Collider, which has a circumference of 17 miles on the Swiss-French border. Weinstein hopes that the Hadron will finally confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, a long hypothesized subatomic particle considered vital as a kind of “glue” for matter, if I understand it. But Weinstein believes we must go beyond the Higgs boson, and he’s pessimistic that the needed funding will ever be there.
Another youthful memory is of working my way across the Atlantic as a deckhand on a freighter, with the job of scraping rust off winches. My head had been full of atomic and subatomic concepts — the idea that everything seemingly solid was really only something like air with a lot of tiny specks flying through it. An English teacher had suggested that, if he only had enough faith, he could walk straight through the desk in front of him. Well, standing there on the hard deck and scratching away at the resistant rust on the iron winches made all such ideas of immaterality seem absurd. Whatever I was attacking with chisel and brush was too real.
Now, for all the seeming disparity between our daily experience of the physical world and what science tells us, science isn’t wrong. As I sit at my computer writing this, my mind is confounded by all the invisible forces and connections that make possible today’s “magic” world of communication. Much of this grows out of scientific hypotheses and experimentation that at first had no direct practical application. Only later was technological use found. Weinstein, who thinks we could have learned much more through unmanned space research than through sending people repeatedly into orbit, worries precisely that we are sentimentally drawn to human adventure rather than to research that will bring more answers in the long run — answers that may not have immediate practical value. It was the poets in us, not the scientists, that thrilled last week at the bringing of the shuttle Enterprise to the Intrepid Museum on the Hudson.
Who’s to say? We are of two minds: we want to know, and we want not really to know. There’s a mystery beyond what science is ever likely to discover. On the whole I’m content to stay clear of the unanswerable and to empathize with Keats, who, on contemplating an ancient Grecian urn, brooded, “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity ….”
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News
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