Deeper and deeper into our weird and (mostly) heartening history
Hello Rodenians —
The short, brutish, lonely month of February (for us N. Hemi folk) is done and the Spring winds are whipping all the fine sand along the coast into our ears, and so it is I — Craig Mod — Q-Tips in hand, Mt. Fuji on the horizon, once again writing to you, kind subscriber to Roden, this newsletter.
I loved the “novel” (historical-Lit-scientific-fan-fiction?) When We Cease to Understand the World to bits, not only for the subject matter (I adore physics and have always adored physics; more on that below), but for the lyricism Benjamin Labatut and translator Adrian Nathan West bring to the subjects at hand — early 20th century physics. And the title is the title for the reason — there is a level of uncertainty to nuclear / quantum mechanics that is kinda creepy when you think about it, kinda theological, and yet runs much of the contemporary world. Squint and you can probably plop AI and ML and many of these other “systems that learn” as fuzzy bedmates with some of these atomic principles. The dramatized, abbreviated history of this book provides a good macro framework for what follows:
Since (certain) humans these days can be a bit depressing, I’ve been digging into David Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, which, at its core is saying: Pre-agrarian homo sapiens were way more interesting than we may have been lead to believe. A bevy of insights built upon the last thirty years of archeological digs and data. These pre-“western,” pre-land-ownership-defined social structures were fluid and funky and creative and … fun?
The freedom to abandon one’s community, knowing one will be welcomed in faraway lands; the freedom to shift back and forth between social structures, depending on the time of year; the freedom to disobey authorities without consequence – all appear to have been simply assumed among our distant ancestors, even if most people find them barely conceivable today.
When I set off on my long walks — and maybe in particular this last Tiny Barber walk through ten cities last November / December — I feel, palpably, like I’m tapping into a wee bit of what Graeber references. This movement through “faraway lands” where it’s going to “work out.” Where sets of shared fundamental beliefs enable this kind of movement. I brim with gratitude on these walks and feel like the fullest-of-most-fully-realized versions of my “isolate self.” (“Isolate” because the older I get the more I recognize the many self variants — like the family-self — which feel like they exist on parallel tracks, operate a bit differently.) It’s easy to imagine us programmed to self-reward for these kinds of actions (sustained locomotion over continuous blocks of days and weeks) on a genetic level, and is perhaps fundamental to why / how we succeeded in becoming the dominator of the planet. But for any of this to work, you sort of need … kindness?
Rutger Bregman, Elizabeth Manton, and Erica Moore’s Humankind operates from the premise: Homo sapiens “beat out” Neanderthals and the like not because we were murderous, blood thirsty proto-wallstreet business men and women with more ingenious death spikes on our clubs, but because, actually, we were cooperative and inclined to band together to help each other more so than the other near-human species in the wilds. It was this impulse to help that gave us all the advantage.
Dawn is helping me believe in the inherent cyclical nature of human impulse (and that, say, the “fall” of empires is part of our coding and maybe akin to a burn cycle for healthy forests) and creativity, and Humankind is helping me trust that we’re better (empirically) than most ad-driven click-inducing headlines might purport.
Human creativity, collaboration, and kindness brings us to the great paradox of nuclear physics: A science advanced by necessity of great mathematical and experimental coöperation, but also aggressively propelled by war itself. (To be fair: war as a great research propellant is true for … almost everything? A pandemic is a good proxy for war, too, it seems.) And it’s this very science itself that leads us to create tools that, very arguably, are beyond the scope of the brains we have today (certainly in terms of second and third order consequences, and certainly in terms of Impact At Scale, which our brains seem preternaturally bad at considering; still — all miraculous considering these goo-sponges are the same ones we had a hundred-thousand years ago).
Meaning: The Making of the Atomic Bomb is one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. I can’t believe how much vitality is present on each (dense) page. If only because you quickly realize that as bad as climate change and extreme political views may be, perhaps the only “true” existential threat to humanity en toto is our dormant arsenal of 13,890 nuclear warheads spread throughout the world. (That is, the threat from which we probably could not recover, that would erase consciousness entirely from our corner of the galaxy; however painful the others may be, we will likely find a path forward?; or: nuke-related objects considerably reset the scale of our shared Y-Axis for Species Propagation; see above re: scale (and yes, of course, we should be working on all of these problems in parallel!))
Published in 1987, written by Richard Rhodes, Making clocks in around 900 pages and goes through, in granular, nuanced detail, how we went from Newtonian physics of the world-before-our-eyes, to the abstract, gassy, mentally-modeled, lab-bound physics of the atom, to The Bomb.
Here is the very moment Francis William Aston realized — as mediated via weirdly archaic-looking/sounding mechanisms driving gas and spectrometric measurements — that the atom was an energy powerhouse:
Comparing helium to hydrogen, nearly 1 percent of the hydrogen mass was missing (4 divided by 4.032 = .992 = 99.2%). “If we were able to transmute hydrogen into helium nearly 1 percent of the mass would be annihilated. On the relativity equivalence of mass and energy now experimentally proved [Aston refers here to Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2], the quantity of energy liberated would be prodigious. Thus to change the hydrogen in a glass of water into helium would release enough energy to drive the ‘Queen Mary’ across the Atlantic and back at full speed.”
There is something almost embarrassingly exciting about seeing this written out — this moment of insight, propped up by mathematical transparency and certitude, of the literal power of splitting the atoms of the world all around us. And remember: We’ve barely had 100 years of living with this first insight / observation of latent nuclear energy.
I like to remind myself: the cost of ten minutes of light has gone from a day’s work in Babylonian times, to the essentially unlimited “free” light today. Yes, humans benefit from the kindness impulse, but it’s the compounding of research, the systemic passing of knowledge from generation to generation, our mentoring and nurturing of apprentices, that has enabled this potent and increasingly-abstract scaling of contemporary times.
I’ve always been drawn to the mechanics of things (which may be why I find coding palliative). Discovering a bit of physics and matrix math when I was a teenager set my mind reeling — nothing was more exciting than the idea of modern physics + creative math as a great universal decompiler of the “code” (atomic, genetic, temporal) of everything around us. A book like The Making of the Atomic Bomb is so compelling because a) it’s committed to a rigorous presentation of the subject at hand, b) it essentially allows us to “walk through the decompiler,” walk back the code that forms the kernel for much of contemporary society itself (and, one hopes, future society). And in doing this — in setting and walking past the breakpoints — you begin to internalize (as opposed to simply intellectualize) just how complex, how sensational, and how tenuous this (the world, our lives, functioning commerce, this tendril of our shared timeline) all is.
So when a short-fingered vulgarian, a shirtless horsebacked poster-child dingdong, invades another country — an act that contemporarily seems regressive and barbaric, that reminds us with no small dollop of depression, how fundamentally boring we are individually as a species despite (magnified by?) all the glowing magic screens and sorcery of aircraft jetting about — my impulse is to dig deeper into the kinds of books I’ve mentioned above. Not to shirk away, but to try to understand more clearly the very code of today. Especially when the n-word is brought out and everyone’s ears perk up and we collectively go: Oh, come on, you’re not that desperate are you? Are you? … ARE YOU?
And then I look towards the folks coming together, the banding together that Humankind espouses as our great, ingenious impulse / social tool, and I have to admit I am heartened. The abject bore of a single human with too many toys is usurped by the emotional rise of a people, of many peoples. The social cycles of Dawn are everywhere, but as The Making of the Atomic Bomb lays clear, the stakes for each cycle are higher than ever, the need for refined emotional intelligence in leadership ever more non-negotiable.
I don’t really have a landing spot for the above; this is just what I’ve been seeding my brain with as I work on my own next book, the followup to Kissa by Kissa. I’ve been publishing to a members-only writing diary newsletter ~five times a week (we’re on issue 50!) and it has been both: a lot of fun, and keeps me honest and productive.
As I work through a book like Making, I am in awe of the effort that has gone into it: the (tens of?) thousands of footnotes and the lyrical weaving of hundreds of threads of lives and scientific discoveries. It’s no surprise that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I wanna see Rhodes’ notecard stack.
I also find myself increasingly (maniacally, obsessively, reverently) glad for these objects — these books — that collimate so much of our scattered world. Something a timeline cannot do, and in fact works actively to subvert. It is messy, this world of ours, and will only get more complicated at an accelerated rate. I suppose one can look for quick answers and dopamine hits in conspiracy theories or doom-scrolling, but I’d suggest the other attack vector: Dig deep into our code. Come up for air and touch a timeline, sure, but like with any good debugging strategy, set clear breakpoints, don’t stew in the scroll, remember how interconnected it all is, and, remember, too that beautiful fiction can help make sense of this muck as much as anything else. In the end, anyway, if physics teaches us anything it’s that everything probably collapses into everything and nothing. Here’s a nice passage about the singularity from When We Cease to Understand the World:
Inside the void his metrics predicted, the fundamental parameters of the universe switched properties: space flowed like time, time stretched out like space. This distortion altered the law of causality; Schwarzschild deduced that if a hypothetical traveller were capable of surviving a journey through this rarefied zone, he would receive light and information from the future, which would allow him to see events that had not yet occurred. If he could reach the centre of the abyss without gravity tearing him apart, he would distinguish two superimposed images projected at once in a small circle over his head, like those that are visible through a kaleidoscope: in one, he would perceive the entire future evolution of the universe at an inconceivable pace, in the other, the past frozen in a single instant.
The anomalies were not confined to the singularity’s interior.