The Great Unknown: Marcelo Gleiser and the Limits of Science

We must recognise that because of the very nature of human inquiry every age has its unknowables. The question we need to address, then, is whether certain unknowables are here to stay or whether they can be dealt with in due course. Must every question have an answer?

— Marcelo Gleiser

Picture an island. The ocean, in all directions, stretches to the horizon. The island is what we know and understand of the universe. The ocean recedes and advances unevenly around the coastline as we learn more, subsuming what turned out to be false and revealing new land when a new “truth” is affirmed. This is the central metaphor in Marcelo Gleiser‘s endlessly fascinating The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (Basic Books, 2014). In this free-ranging, accessible account of what we know, how we came to know it, and what we can maybe never know, Gleiser reveals wonders both cosmic and quantum. Although its subtitle, “The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning,” may sound defeatist, The Island of Knowledge is instead inspiring. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary enterprise of the world’s scientists and philosophers over the last few millennia. It’s a paean to our boundless capacity for awe. And, in its closing pages, it’s a celebration of limitation as something that might in fact be intrinsically human.

Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601

The book is split in three: “The Origin of the World and the Nature of the Heavens”; “From Alchemy to the Quantum: The Elusive Nature of Reality”; and “Mind and Meaning.” In the first part, Gleiser takes us on a historical journey. We meet the earliest astronomer-philosophers, observing the skies with just the naked eye, and are acquainted with current theories surrounding multiverses and the origins and future of the universe. We see how science — the investigation and description of the world through testable hypotheses — was born of observation. The series of conceptual shifts regarding the nature of celestial bodies began with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who spent three decades measuring the movement of plants with nothing but “quadrants, sextants, astrolabes, and other instruments.” His measurements were enough for Johannes Kepler to demonstrate that the orbit of Mars is elliptical. “Few examples in the history of science,” Gleiser suggests, “illustrate so clearly the power of high-precision data as a catalyst for a revolutionary shift in our collective worldview.” Kepler’s suspicion that the movement of the Sun and the planets was due to a kind of magnetism laid the conceptual groundwork for Newton’s “discovery” of gravity. Galileo played a part, too, with his demonstration that objects of different masses fall at the same rate. Newton then arrived

as the great unifier, the man who ties the physics of the Earth with that of the heavens. He shows that both Galileo’s law of free fall and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are, in effect, the same, as he expressed in his law of universal gravity.

The New York Times, 10 November 1919

The telescope and its twin, the microscope, offered new ways of looking at the world and gave rise to exciting new theories. Then the dawn of the twentieth century brought with it another great revolution in thought. Einstein’s theory of special relativity changed how we think about time and space. His work is now the basis of our understanding of the origins and possible future of the universe. The work of Stephen Hawking from the 1960s on has led to the widely accepted notion that the universe must have begun as a singularity. Others’ work on cosmic inflation — the period of rapid expansion of the universe following the Big Bang — and multiverses (possible alternative or additional universes) brings us to where we are now in our knowledge. The further we’ve come, the more we know we don’t know. And in multiverses, we arguably butt up against a logical unknowable, as that which exists beyond our own universe is necessarily unmeasurable. But is that the end of the story?

Consistent with the notion that the Universe has been expanding since its beginnings is the notion that in the distant past it was very small — so small, in fact, that the rules of quantum physics had to determine its overall behavior.

The Earth, as seen from Apollo 8 (Image: NASA)

Part II tells the story of our enduring fascination with the very essence of things. Democritus, who believed that “truth is in the depths,” intuited that knowledge of the most fundamental sort lay beyond his purview. Alchemists’ obsession with transformation belied an overwhelming need to understand those fundaments. The advent of quantum physics represented a major advance in our understanding of essence. As a narrative, it describes the very small, “a reality quite distinct from our own.” We see that the so-called “classical” worldview is no more than an approximation: Newtonian physics may be adequate for describing large bodies, but it’s insufficient at a quantum level. The work of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr in describing the atom was an essential first step. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle demonstrated how we cannot know simultaneously the velocity and position of a particle, pulling the rug out from those in the scientific community who hoped that quantum physics might provide a (crypto-religious) description of causation and order in the world. “Strictly speaking,” Gleiser writes, “the act of measurement gives reality to what is being measured, bringing it from the netherworld of quantum potentialities to the concrete world of detection and sensorial perception.” This conclusion is a philosophical nightmare. If the act of observation affects measurement, what are the ontological implications? If we cannot see the Moon, is it still there? Quantum mechanics, Gleiser concludes, “forces us to confront the unknowable head-on.”

In Part III, we visit questions epistemological. In the discovery and formalisation of mathematics, we see how science and faith overlap in their aims. Patterns in nature led to the belief that reality might be “the handiwork of invisible purveyors of regularity [… and thus] the origin of things is always associated with the emergence of order, with or without a divine hand to guide it.” Mathematics, in providing the language of physics, attained a particularly lionized position in the scientific pantheon. But knowledge is only ever partial, even in a science as pure as math. As Gödel and Turing found, “mathematics as a formal structure is not complete, it is not consistent, and it is not decidable.” Despite the money pouring into schemes like the Human Brain Project, can algorithms really be used to simulate human brain activity? And if they can’t, does this point to the existence of some other force or impulse? A soul, even?

Marcelo Gleiser’s is “a view of open-ended pursuit, not of envisioned ends.” As he suggests, science can be reduced to narratives that best reflect the knowledge of the day. We can’t necessarily know the extent of what we don’t know. The enormous scientific advances of the last few centuries have opened up countless avenues of research, and this is, in Gleiser’s view, enough. “Awe,” he says, “is the bridge between our past and our present, taking us forward into the future as we keep on searching.” It’s arguably a lesson we all learned as children: pleasure lies more in the coveting than the having.

You can see Marcelo Gleiser at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Inside the Lie, at City Winery on September 29. Buy tickets here. Also featuring: Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Gail Sheehy, and Andrew Solomon. You can buy Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge, and other books he’s written, at McNally Jackson.

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Quantum Mechanics, Walk With Me: On Interpreting David Lynch

David LynchBooks about film directors fall broadly into three categories: biographical, industrial (behind the scenes), and theoretical. David Lynch, an artist whose experiments in popular surrealism have seen him move in and out of public favour and critical acclaim, is a director whose oeuvre repays thoughtful work in all three. Two new books — Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, by Brad Dukes (short/Tall Press, 2014), and David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire, by Martha P. Nochimson (University of Texas Press, 2013, recently out in paperback) — are cases in point.

Reflections is a dogged book, a remarkable example of what fanatical devotion to research can produce. Dukes tells the story of Lynch and Mark Frost’s game-changing television show (“this sublime mayhem” in Michael Ontkean’s phrase) from the first kernel of an idea through its initial runaway success to its cancellation and the critical savaging received by prequel movie Fire Walk With Me (1992). He’s interviewed dozens of actors, directors and production team members, including almost all the main cast (though Lynch himself is silent). The attention to detail is extraordinary. Casting sessions and individual days of filming are recalled. There’s an interview with the co-founder of COOP (Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks), a grassroots organization that helped keep Twin Peaks going in its darkest hour. Richard Beymer talks us through his outrageous brie baguette-eating scene in Episode 2. Angelo Badalamenti has a great story about the Queen of England not having time to talk to Paul McCartney because she was worried she’d miss an episode. There’s even a whole chapter on Invitation to Love, the mock soap opera that some of the show’s characters follow in Season 1.

But for all the fond recollections, the value of Reflections is in its behind-the-scenes revelations. As one executive commented when he saw the pilot, after Twin Peaks, “tried and true was dead and buried”. What made the show so original — its flights into Tibetan mysticism, dreams and transcendentalism; its emotional intensity; its complex narrative arcs — is commonly attributed to Lynch, despite the fact that he directed only six of its thirty episodes. But his authority was compromised in other ways too. Network television could never permit the freedoms afforded to him while making movies like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr. The resolution of Twin Peaks’s central enigma, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, was coerced out of the show’s makers by ABC. A storyline that might have seen a romantic relationship develop between Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne was vetoed by Kyle MacLachlan. The final episode, one of the strangest ever seen on network television, was directed by Lynch in the knowledge that the show was unlikely to be renewed for a third season. Any comprehensive reading of Twin Peaks must surely be affected by all this information — and much else that fills Dukes’s comprehensive volume. But to what extent?

Of course, Lynch has often turned industrial pressures to his advantage. Mulholland Dr. was an aborted TV pilot that became one of his best-received movies, earning him a best director award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination. Inland Empire, his most challenging film, was only really made possible by the advent of cheap digital video, which facilitated the piecemeal, experimental techniques that produced it. Just as Reflections allows us to consider the possible impact of industrial considerations on the narrative arc of Twin Peaks, so what we know of the making of Lynch’s two most recent movies must surely affect how we interpret them.

But, as Agent Cooper would say, “the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.”

“The character of the external world in Lynch’s filmic universes has all but eluded criticism so far. It’s time for a change.” Martha P. Nochimson’s book, which takes a much more theoretical approach to Lynch’s work, is the most disruptive work of Lynch criticism I’ve yet read. Her excellent 1997 book The Passion of David Lynch used the work of Carl Jung as an interpretative paradigm. Acknowledging, though, that the increased complexity of his work from Lost Highway onward demands methodological refinement for successful analysis, in David Lynch Swerves Nochimson interrogates the existing literature before moving on to her own — incredible — new conclusions. She has no compunction about taking on the giants of Lynch criticism, suggesting that Slavoj Žižek’s ideas about Lost Highway “shed more heat than light” and roundly dismissing Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, a book I’d always held in pretty high regard. She also explodes the existing critical (near-)consensus on the structures of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., stating plainly, “These characters are not dreaming.”

What’s the big idea? Well, unexpectedly, quantum mechanics. Borrowing physical concepts including entanglement (“in which multiple particles respond to stimuli as if they were one as well as many”) and superposition (which “allows for one particle to be in two places at exactly the same time”), Nochimson develops a strong case for adopting a totally new framework for understanding Lynch’s second-phase work. This framework avoids the reductiveness of the “dream” reading of Mulholland Dr. or the standard interpretation of Lost Highway, in which Pete is a mere phantasm of Fred. As Nochimson points out, most critics ignore what actually happens onscreen in order to reach these conclusions. Alice and Renee (as played by Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway) don’t entirely not co-exist, for instance, but instead — she argues — behave like particles in superposition, as both “she” and “they.” Similarly, Betty and Diane in Mulholland Dr. are both the same and different: Betty and Betty/Diane rather than simply Betty and Diane.

“Boundlessness” is a key concept for Nochimson and one that’s connected to Lynch’s own fascination with transcendental meditation (see Catching the Big Fish and the David Lynch Foundation). Quantum mechanics, with its openness to a physical world of improbable possibility, turns out to be the perfect metaphor for exploring this boundlessness. Lynch’s work depicts what lies beyond what Nochimson calls the “marketplace”, an oppressive place that seeks to limit individuals through its definition of a fictional “reality”. For Fred and Fred/Pete, and Betty and Betty/Diane, breaking through into a joyous boundlessness is too difficult. That is their tragedy. But the limitless expanses outside the marketplace can be a source of bliss. This is certainly the case for Lynch’s most recent heroine, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, in Inland Empire), who emerges from the film’s labyrinth into a state of pure joy in the film’s raucous end credits, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”.

The richness of Nochimson’s writing, the thoroughness of her interpretation, and her assured stance in opposition to the canon of Lynch criticism to date all make David Lynch Swerves a must-read for anyone interested in his films. Or, for that matter, the state of film criticism in American culture. If criticism at its best is a form of revelation, then this is practically a new gospel.

You can buy David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty From Lost Highway to Inland Empire and Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks at McNally Jackson. For an exhaustive biography of Lynch, check out Greg Olson’s excellent David Lynch: Beautiful Dark (Scarecrow Press, 2008).