11.08.2004

Out of Plumb

In honor of the new tone here at Coney Island, I am initiating an occasional series on a non-presidential topic: science and technology. This seems especially appropriate since the blogging medium could be considered a type of technology in its own right. To set the ball rolling, below is a fairly lame essay I wrote last year that touches briefly on some pertinent issues. (Sorry, it’s pretty long.)

I.
Among its various inscrutable hypotheses, string theory proposes a world with invisible dimensions beyond our familiar three of space and one of time. There has been considerable debate over the exact number, but it seems eleven is the current frontrunner. Yes, eleven. Clever analogies involving pool tables, donuts, and steaming loaves of bread have been offered to me in explanation, but I still don’t get it. And they say these dimensions, like the strings themselves, are completely undetectable with our existing instrumentation.

Tony “Smoothie” Stevens, a retired correctional officer from Pine Bush, New York, appears to be a step ahead of our brightest scientific minds. He has actually seen one of these extra dimensions. “One night I was out on a little country road near the Jewish cemetery,” he reports in the local newspaper. “It was a little damp with ground fog coming and going. Then the fog enveloped the truck. I started seeing silhouettes of people. At one point, a guy on a bike came right at the truck. He should have hit the windshield, but he didn’t. He just disappeared.” Smoothie watched in silence as the bucolic road turned into a bustling city street. “All kinds of pedestrian traffic was walking past the alley opening through the fog,” he says. “It was a busy, busy street in some other dimension, right there on a back country road in Pine Bush.”

For a brief period I had the good fortune of living in Pine Bush -- the self-described UFO capital of the northeastern United States. I witnessed no atmospheric anomalies myself, just a recurring procession of low-flying airplanes at evening in route to the nearby airport. But I am assured of their existence. “A lot of people in Pine Bush talk about abduction. That's real common around here,” says John DiTuro, a computer engineer from the area. “When I was taken, there were bright lights, a table. One held up a needle and I could see it glistening. He jabbed it into my head behind my ear. I blacked out. When they returned me, they put me back in bed wrong. My feet were on the pillow. I guess they didn't know the difference.”

Jim Smith is a self-described expert in extraterrestrial motion. His research, which consists chiefly of personal encounters, indicates that the majority of space aliens travel in frames, like time-lapse photography, disappearing and re-materializing in a different spot. He reports other oddities, too, such as a roving cat with a chunk of cardboard in place of its head. “In Pine Bush, you see things you don't expect,” Smith says. “But not everyone can see the cat or the beings. You have to be open to things like that.”

Not a few folks in Pine Bush are open to things like that. Our tiny municipality reports more UFO sightings and alien abductions than any other in the region, by a considerable margin. But we are not alone in our obsession with finding life beyond earth. About 100 scientific programs exist worldwide dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. The mother of them all -- the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California -- began as a government-funded project, until the U.S. Congress cancelled it in 1993. Still, they have managed to find more than $55 million in private funding to keep the dream alive.

“Because our solar system is relatively young compared with the universe overall,” writes Paul Davies, an Australian philosopher and scientist, “any alien civilization the SETI researchers might discover is likely to be much older, and presumably wiser, than ours.” John DiTuro might disagree, since his captors could barely distinguish his head from his feet. Nonetheless, the general consensus seems to be that the aliens, when they finally reveal themselves, will put our science and technology to shame. And it follows quite naturally, according to Davies, that any scientifically superior civilization will have improved on our level of moral development: “One may even speculate that an advanced alien society would sooner or later find some way to genetically eliminate evil behavior, resulting in a race of saintly beings.”

II.
Charles Darwin came out of the grand tradition of the Victorian naturalists, who circled the untrammeled world of the late 18th Century describing and collecting “God’s creation.” Darwin’s work may have complicated things a bit, but never mind whose creation it is. These scientists still took the same approach as Darwin: nature as a vast and splendid library, full of books to be read and savored.

Nature is an instructor without equal. It is the essence of to teleion, a thorny bit of Greek that biblical translators have rendered “perfection,” but which really corresponds to no single English word. It means doing what you were built to do, and also the fullness that comes from being in that condition. A whale’s massive swinging tail is the embodiment of power, but it does him little good on the beach; wielding it will only dig him deep into the sand. When he is in the ocean, however, he is in his element -- an ungainly behemoth gliding through the water like an eagle on an updraft.

Darwin saw to teleion in the natural world, “in the woodpecker and misseltoe; . . . in the humblest parasite which clings to the hairs of a quadruped or feathers of a bird; in the structure of the beetle which dives through the water; in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze.” He just called it by another name -- adaptation -- and ascribed credit to a different source.

While the naturalist’s cataloguing work is mostly done (with the notable exception of a few million microbes hanging around the oceans’ hydrothermal vents), the concept is still useful to us. No one really expects, or even wants, science to return to its technological adolescence. But perhaps a polite nod to these predecessors, naïve though they were, could help give scientists a bit of context in approaching the biggest problems of the modern world -- many of which stem from a distorted view of nature that scientists have done little to correct.

III.
The Hudson River painters developed the first distinctly American school of art. Heeding Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call to “ignore the courtly Muses of Europe,” they threw off their Romantic roots and created a style befitting the New World. They did, however, maintain a bond with their Victorian contemporaries, the naturalists. Though the American continent lay before them vast and unexplored, they viewed it not as a land to be conquered, but as a natural resource to evoke reverence and awe.

They painted the American experience: dramatic landscapes set against vaunted skies, with the occasional person thrown in for good measure, dwarfed by the immensity of the scene. Man was merely an afterthought, but he was privileged to behold the magnificence, and given just enough of the divine spark to take it in and process it.

One of the more famous paintings -- “Kindred Spirits” by Asher B. Durand -- depicts a scene not far from where I lived in Pine Bush. It is a classic leafy gorge in the Catskill Mountains, complete with soft rounded peaks and an unearthly glow. Like most of the paintings from the Hudson River school, it is plush and overstated, bordering dangerously on kitsch.

Two men are standing on a promontory, chatting amiably, as one motions toward something in the distance. The other has his head uncovered, in an apparent gesture of respect and wonder. What are they looking at? Maybe it is the gushing stream, symbolizing the endless flow of time to eternity. Or maybe it is a soaring bird, caught up in the currents of glorious freedom. Or maybe it is a local animal they have never seen before, a creature so wholly adapted to its ecological niche as to inspire shock and disbelief -- like a cardboard-headed cat.

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