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Patrick Madden

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

neil peart

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

primo levi

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 celibacy.

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 with Exxon.

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.

simone weil

Other useful metaphors from the realm of science and mathematics:

D xD 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 lamb?


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.

simone weil

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 Fourth Genre.

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