Gravity and Distance
I believe that it's best to be straightforward about
things. The metaphor I am invoking with this essay's title is borrowed
from a song by Rush:
Gravity and distance change the passage of light
Gravity and distance change the color of right
The lyrics that surround it are rather unremarkable, and
the context of the song seems to cast these lines in the sense of "don't
be self-righteous"—something rather uninteresting. But I have used the
above metaphor, changed it around, suited it to my needs. I am interested
in the double sense of gravity and distance. Physical vs. metaphysical. I
take the second meaning of the quotation as another way of saying there is
a great difference between theory and practice. When things are serious,
when we see them up close, they look different.
We start with Montaigne, 1533–1592, father of the essay
form, collector of thoughts in commonplace books, quotes from the sages,
marginalia expanded to his grandiose discussion of himself, coiner of the
term, in French, essais, meaning attempts or trials, popular and
widely read for his honesty, his wit, his invitation to accompany him in
thought as he ponders a variety of life questions.
His influence was felt widely in his day, even as it is
now. Follow the line of influence to Pascal, 1623–1662, mathematician,
scientist, inventor of the first digital computing machine, found by his
father deriving Euclid at age eleven, convert to Jansenism, apologist
author of the never-completed fragmentary Pensées, a rational
argument for the necessity of belief and the truth of Christ's message and
salvation, written, apparently, in reaction to, against, with a copy of
Montaigne's Essais in hand.
Skip a few centuries to Simone Weil, 1909–1943, born in
affluence in Paris, raised Jewish, critic of capitalism, teacher of the
poor, mercenary in Spain's civil war, fieldhand and factory worker
alongside those she struggled to support, near convert to Catholicism,
social critic, saint of all outsiders, author of, among other things,
Gravity and Grace and Waiting for God, written with Pascal in
hand and in a similarly fragmented style.
Among countless others whose writings have been guided
by these three I place myself, rather audaciously, 1971– , husband,
father, bachelor of physics, master of English, inventor of nothing
substantial, collector of scattered thoughts, lover of metaphor, not
French, convert to Mormonism, writing with Montaigne, Pascal, and Weil in
hand, scattered on the desk, on the floor, on the bed behind me.
1630s, Pisa, Italy: (according to legend) Galileo drops
various objects from the Leaning Tower and observes that they land at
approximately the same time.
The acceleration of gravity, g, equals nine point eight
meters per second squared; thirty two feet per second per second.
1687, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Sir
Isaac Newton: every particle in the universe attracts every other particle
with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses
and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
The universal gravitational constant, the number inside
the proportional, G, equals six point six seven two times ten to the
negative eleventh Newton (kilogram meter per second squared) meters
squared per kilogram squared.
August 7, 1971, four and a half months after my birth,
astronaut David Scott is on the moon; in the absence of air resistance he
drops the proverbial falcon's feather and geologist's hammer, and they
reach the moon's surface simultaneously.
Muttered under his breath after he is forced to retract
his Ptolemaic heliocentric views before an Inquisition tribunal:
E pur si muove
But it does move
This can't be the first conflict between faith and
science, but it is early enough for me to choose it as epitomal. I see the
conflict as born of egotism and corruption. I enjoy my position of
power; I claim that God has put me here; in order to stay where I am, I
must keep the people down. I have educated myself; I see that the
world does not work the way you say it does, the way the scriptures say; I
have no need of your religion, your stories, your oppressive God. Deny
what you know; bow down and worship; confirm what the scripture says.
But it does move.
With only minor variations, people respond to the news
that I've left behind a bachelor's degree in physics to pursue a master's
and now a Ph.D. in English in the same way: "That's a big switch." We're
used to one or the other. Science or Art. Right or left brain.
The inevitable Q: "What made you decide to change from
physics to English?"
Being a chemist in the world's eyes, and feeling . . . a writer's blood
in my veins
It seems pretentious to claim "a writer's blood" in my
own veins, but I think Levi's evocation fits. Unlike many people you read
about, I never had an epiphany in my youth about my calling in life. The
priests and nuns who taught me in grade school often mused about their
callings—still, small voices that told them to dedicate their lives to the
Lord, never get married, live in poverty. I grew up afraid. "What if God
calls me to be a priest?" I wondered, knowing that you can't refuse God.
Even before I liked girls I was repelled by the thought of lifelong
Thankfully, God never did call me to be a priest, and
instead I went through phases of interests which changed according to what
was going on around me and what I was learning. When I started playing
Little League I wanted to be a baseball player, never mind the fact that I
never got a hit in a game. When my friends and I started listening to rock
and roll, I bought a guitar and learned to play. I took part in all the
activities my parents could handle, did well in my classes, in swimming,
track and field, and football, and enjoyed learning. The most long-lived
of my (serious) possible future vocations were archaeology, inspired by
the dinosaur books my mother bought me and later by the Indiana Jones
movies; architecture, because of my father's advice about combining my
drawing ability with a realistic career and because of The Fountainhead;
and physics, because of a wonderful high school teacher whose approach to
science was experimental and mechanistic and the world made sense and it
was good, and because of my own ego. My father had told me that physics
was the most difficult major, and I wanted to prove that I could learn it.
I graduated from Notre Dame in 1993 with my B.S. in
physics, somewhat soured on the idea of continuing on into the higher,
weirder realms of science, and I soon left the country to serve a two-year
mission for my new church. I had become a Mormon during my junior year and
the idea of spreading the news and serving others in a foreign country was
appealing. I was sent to Uruguay, where I learned Spanish, met my wife,
worked hard, sweat and froze, and did a lot of thinking.
It was during that time that I finally decided that I
wouldn't continue in physics—shut out so many interests and activities for
the sake of a paycheck. I could do it, sit around for hours
crunching through problems and grasping at theories, but I didn't want to.
I had gotten good grades in physics, I passed my tests, and my experiments
gave close to their intended results. But I had already started realizing
by the time I was a sophomore, and physics was beyond Newton's
deterministic universe and on to things I could no longer see, that I was
no longer so taken with science. I began then taking English classes and
philosophy classes and theology classes; by my senior year I was taking
painting and figure drawing and photography classes; I played more
volleyball than anything else. Physics was too limiting, too theoretical,
too exclusive. I wanted to think about other things, play the guitar,
sing. I wanted, like everyone does, to work at something variable and
self-directed, something I loved doing; I wanted to earn enough to support
a family; wake up excited to go to work, do something I'd do for free
anyway, that sort of thing.
We search for other lives that parallel our own. It is
comforting to know we are not alone. I like to see the similarities
between my father and me. We have the same name (something like living
with a nominal twin: mostly problematic, but once or twice useful:
frequent flier miles, roadside assistance). We have nearly the same voice
(also problematic when callers ask for Pat). We are both tall and strong.
We look alike, except for my father's moustache, glasses, and darker,
grayer hair. We have the same difficulty with sticking to science and math
at the expense of the humanities.
During his college years at Notre Dame my father studied
chemical engineering, but also sang in the Glee Club and learned to play
Beatles songs on guitar. Midway through his senior year, in the middle of
a sort of existential dilemma, he decided to throw away the three and a
half years he had already spent on engineering and change his major to
music. Final exams for Fall semester were after Christmas, but he didn't
go back; he stayed working for an uncle pouring concrete basements in
Milwaukee, then worked selling portable Whirlpool baths. Then his draft
number came up and it was too late to get back into school to avoid the
army. He spent the summer in basic training in Missouri, some days so hot
the troops spent all day in an air conditioned movie theater, then moved
on to New Jersey for electronics repair training, anything to postpone the
trip to Vietnam. Saturdays he spent at New York at Cardinal Spellman's
Servicemen's Club—no alcohol, just pool and ping pong and local Catholic
girls, among them my mother. After Vietnam, after his counterpart, the
day-shift guy in the signal corps, got blown up by a grenade, after his
mother fell terribly ill with cancer, after his reprimand on counts of
subversion for publishing an anti-war newspaper on base in Chicago, after
he and my mother were married, he returned to Notre Dame, talked his way
out of his failing grades, retook some classes, and finished his degree in
chemical engineering. Just this past year he retired after thirty years
I, the beneficiary of that self-sacrificial decision to
stick with the sure thing, to become an engineer and find a job and work
for thirty years with the same company to give his family a comfortable
life, respect his choice. And he still sings, but I can't help wondering
what he might have done with music. At times I lament the choice he made,
wonder if he felt he had to make it, if he compared his possibilities to
those his salesman father had, if he felt his ability constituted a
responsibility to society; I wonder if I, not yet born but in his near
future, swayed his decision with the weight of my needs. When he was a
young father he still played his guitar and taught me "Day Tripper," but
now only my brothers and I ever pick it up to play.
His brother Jeff did choose music, and he plays guitar
as well as anyone I've heard. Their mother died when Jeff was seventeen,
their father was always on the road selling something, my father was
married and living in New Jersey, their brother Tom was off at college
then off on a mission for his new Mormon church, so Jeff and the youngest,
Lynne, ended up fending for themselves. Jeff takes drugs, he drinks, he
fathers a child, he sleeps in, gets fired, gets married, gets divorced,
studies refrigeration and air conditioning, quits, thinks he's being
followed, thinks he's the victim, thinks there's no way back, drinks,
takes drugs, joins a band, misses a gig, doesn't pay his rent, moves to
Reno, shacks up, dyes his hair blonde. He's gone for years, no phone,
nobody has his address, then he calls "Hey I got a job driving trucks and
I'm a couple miles away. Come pick me up?" or he calls for money. My
father always gives it to him.
All the natural movements of the soul are controlled
by laws analogous to those of physical gravity.
Other useful metaphors from the realm of science and
p ³ h
It is fundamentally impossible to make simultaneous
measurements of a particle's position and velocity with infinite accuracy,
"Since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer . . . we
have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature
exposed to our method of questioning," Werner Heisenberg, 1927, much for
science, more for metaphor and a postmodern mindset of doubt.
f(x) = x2 - µ
"Many important spatial patterns of Nature are either
irregular or fragmented to such an extreme degree that classical geometry
is hardly of any help in describing their form. . . . It is possible in
many cases to remedy this absence of geometric representation by using a
family of shapes I propose to call fractals—or fractal sets." Benoit
Mandelbrot, 1977, advanced geometry of infinitude of complexities,
mountain ranges, holes in cheese, rivers and streams, veins in leaves, the
circulatory system, infinite coastline if you measure on the scale of a
grain of sand.
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2: 0, 1,
1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, ad infinitum
"A certain man put a pair of rabbits in a place
surrounded on all sides by a wall. How many pairs of rabbits can be
produced from that pair in a year if it is supposed that every month each
pair begets a new pair which from the second month on becomes productive?"
Leonardo de Pisa, filius Bonacci, Fibonacci, 1202, contemporary of Francis
of Assisi, brought base-ten Arabic number system to Europe, the Fibonacci
set of numbers accurately describes the number of sections in spiral
shells, the number of kernels on a corncob, the number of peas in a pod,
the number of leaves in a cluster on a branch, and various other patterns
found in nature.
E = mc2
Einstein said "God does not play dice," and yet quantum
theory and relativity remain in force as mutually exclusive, mutually
beneficial and provable principles. In the search for a grand unified
theory of physics, these two are insurmountable obstacles. If Einstein is
right, completely right, then Schrödinger is wrong, and vice versa. Though
most people would be hard pressed to explain exactly how, Einstein's
theory manifest its power to the world in Hiroshima. Schrödinger and
Dirac's work has made its mark more subtly. After all, where Einstein is
known the world over for his contributions to physics, Schrödinger is best
known for his possibly dead cat.
From a letter from a friend alerting me to another
friend's deteriorating health and hospitalization: "Es bastante grave."
Spanish. Es means "is"; in Spanish, which often casually omits
sentence subjects because of separate distinguishable verb conjugations,
es can mean "it is"; It, in the context of this letter,
means "the situation" or "the illness." Bastante means "enough" or
"sufficient"; used as a modifier it may also mean "very"; I know of no
English cognate. Grave means "grave."
Grave is an overlap.
Gravity, the force of attraction, the force holding us to earth's surface,
cause of the apple falling. Gravity, the seriousness of the situation, the
bleak outlook, the lack of hope. Grave, the adjective form of
hopelessness, danger, heaviness. Grave, the end, a hole in the ground, one
with the earth, pulling the others.
gravamen (grievance), grave1 (place of
burial), grave2 (serious, weighty), grave3 (carve,
engrave), grave4 (remove barnacles and coat with pitch), grave5
(slowly, solemnly), graveclothes (shroud), gravedigger (digger of graves),
gravel (rock fragments), gravelblind (purblind), graven image (idol),
graver (stone carver), grave robber (tomb plunderer), gravestone
(tombstone), graveyard (cemetery), graveyard shift (midnight to 8:00
a.m.), gravid (pregnant), gravimeter (instrument used to determine
specific gravity), graving dock (dock where ships are cleaned), gravitate
(sink, settle, approach), gravitation (attraction between masses),
graviton (quantum of attraction), gravity1 (attraction between
masses), gravity2 (seriousness, importance), gravure (intaglio
printing), gravy (sauce for meats)
I loved Gonzalo, my gravely ill friend. I had seen him
suffering with cancer, learning English and computers and cooking, singing
along, teaching me lyrics in Spanish me teaching him lyrics in English,
riding around town on the yellow wheelchair motorcycle the Rotary Club
gave him, unable to move his legs, steering his bicycle-riding brother
into ditches, always smiling, the typical elegiac praise you come up with
for people who've got it tough, I'm not doing him any favors making him
into a cliché of the happy cripple, the inspiring example, but that is
my weakness, not his. He was vibrant. We were the same age, Gonzalo
and I; we liked the same music. Wednesdays we rode away from town to the
beaches talking and laughing, Gonzalo confined to his chair.
Then I was far away in the United States and he in
Uruguay, and my prayers went unanswered. I dashed off a letter, filled it
with memories and hope, struggled to inspire from a distance, never
thinking seriously, never letting it weigh on me, that grave might
mean "grave." I told about my new son, my great joy, my likeness and
namesake (Gonzalo will probably never have children I kept
thinking). I wrote about how he was almost walking, standing holding on to
furniture and letting go, standing upright for a few seconds before he
fell (Gonzalo hasn't walked since he was fifteen I kept thinking).
I ran through scriptures of put your faith in the Lord, stories of
insurmountable difficulties surmounted, healings and feedings and write
back soon. I don't know if he ever saw the letter.
He died anyway.
Ordinary people have the ability not to think about
things they do not want to think about. . . . But there are some without
this ability to stop themselves from thinking, who think all the more
for being forbidden to do so.
Things I don't want to think about: cruelty, disaster,
the friends I've lost, my irrecoverable childhood, irrationality,
irreducible irrefragable irrefutable truth, fate, destiny, good fortune,
infinity, pi, e, what's outside the universe, what's before the beginning,
what's smaller than a quark, chaos, entropy, unmaking, what is art and
what is pornography, raped children, broken children, battered children,
the irreversible cycles of violence and hate and pain and anger and
darkness, Abraham in the land of Moriah, three day's journey, lying to his
servants, laying the wood upon his son, fire in his hand with his knife,
My father, Here am I, my son, Where is the
In making [supplication] one liberates a certain
amount of energy in oneself by a violence which serves to degrade more
energy. Compensation as in thermo-dynamics; a vicious cycle from which
one can be delivered only from on high.
Isaac was delivered; Abraham was delivered. From on
high. Of the many reasons explanations excuses I have heard, one sticks in
my mind. God wanted, it is said, one earthly father to know His pain, what
is was like to sacrifice his only Son.
One time above all others I felt the great divide
between theory and practice, was closest and the situation heaviest: when
my son was under knife and morphine and screaming ceaselessly. He was born
with a fused sagittal suture, a knob of bone at the base of his skull. No
choice but to operate, this is standard procedure, nothing dangerous, we
have blood on hand but rarely have to use it, he will have a zigzag scar
from ear to ear, that's so his hair will mostly cover it, most kids never
need a second operation, we cut away the bone front to back a strip about
two inches wide, the body at his age replenishes the lost bone and lets
his head grow normally, otherwise he could be brain damaged, the best time
to do this is at two months. We took a rational look at the situation and
made the clear decision.
The anesthesiologist, a wrinkled, sterilized man, comes
to take him. Into your hands I commend my son. We wait impatiently,
fidgeting, silent, staring at the pastel paintings on the walls, the
families of the other children, the inane soap opera on the television in
the corner, the half-eaten trays of food, the finger-painted magic-markered
water-colored crayoned tigers and islands and bicycles and houses with
v-birds and a circle-sun framed in the hallways.
The phone rings intermittently, and eventually we are
cleared to see our son. They wheel him into his room, a writhing screaming
tangle of wires and tubes lost propped by pillows red in the middle of a
stark white stretcher big enough for adults.
I would write about the distressing pain, the
helplessness, the impotence, the rage, the prayers, the fasting, the
priesthood blessings, the ineffectuality of all I or my wife or medicine
could do as my son screamed, two months old with his head sliced in two a
strip of skull removed blood-soaked iodine-soaked bandages and butterfly
strips and jagged uneven black stitches holding him together as his hands
contorted and could not hold my finger could not be still shaking
trembling tired of the pain the IV pulling dripping air bubbles in the
hose setting alarms extra shots of morphine extra shots of Ibuprofen
heart-rate monitors and blood-oxygen monitors pulling away from his chest
his toes nurses pulling his sock back on replacing the stickers on his
chest caresses holding him tightly his mother crying tears falling to a
gathering puddle on the floor beneath her hung head as he screams and
writhes and screams for an entire day twenty-four hours with only short
pauses to breathe Eli Eli never sleeping each scream a full
expenditure of breath worried he won't breathe in again each time tears
rage why stop this stop this if it be thy will
let this cup pass from me.
Patrick Madden lives with his wife and two children in
Athens, Ohio, where he is completing a Ph.D. in English. His essays have
recently been published in Crab Orchard Review and The
Chattahoochee Review, and his interview with Eduardo Galeano was in