What They Knew #30

“High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water…”

– Mark Twain

“…but everybody likes water.”

– Mark Twain

An Uneasy Alliance with My Bete Noire, Dark Energy

Image Credit: NASA via slate.com

Sorry to keep freaking you out, readers. I can’t help it! I’m obsessed with Dark Energy.

What’s not to like? (And by “like” I mean “be terrified about.”)

Here’s Matthew R. Francis, writing in Slate:

Even the name “dark energy” is a placeholder for our ignorance, representing the fact of cosmic acceleration without indicating its identity. Astronomers have measured the acceleration rate and determined that dark energy constitutes more than two-thirds of the energy content of the cosmos, but its identity has defeated theoretical physicists.

Okay, fine. So it’s unknown, like a lot of things. Life’s full of mysteries! But hardly any of them are this big…or this sneaky:

Despite dark energy’s magnitude, astronomers didn’t know about its existence until recently because its effects are subtle. It doesn’t noticeably affect the planets in the solar system or the motion of stars in the galaxy. That subtlety enshrouds it in mystery: Scientists are busily determining what dark energy does, and they have yet to reach any consensus on what dark energy is.

So what are the theories being posited? Can we find something reassuring there? Come on, scientists!

The most popular candidate is vacuum energy: the energy from quantum fluctuations in empty space.

Hmmm….vacuum energy? Not sure I like the sound of that…

This idea was first kicked around in the 1970s and ’80s, long before cosmic acceleration was discovered. Physicists recognized that the same stew of quantum processes that determine the properties of electrons and other particles would grant energy to empty space. From general relativity, any energy has a gravitational effect. In this case, the energy would serve to accelerate cosmic expansion.

The effect of vacuum energy can easily be incorporated into Einstein’s theory as something known as a “cosmological constant,” an extra gravitational factor not created by matter.

Okay, I’m breathing a little easier. Something that’s been around for a while. Einstein was onto it. Sort of a math thing, really.

The problem: The amount of energy predicted by quantum theory is much larger than the observed amount of dark energy, something researchers knew even before the discovery of cosmic acceleration.

D’oh! Dark Energy dances away, laughing its head off.

Dark energy has made physicists face the possibility that general relativity breaks down on the scale of the universe. In that case, new rules in gravity could kick in on distances larger than galaxies, driving cosmic expansion without needing any new substance or quantum effects.

General relativity breaks down!? New rules in gravity??? Come on, Matthew R. Francis. Tell us how crazy this is!

The idea isn’t crazy.

Ugh. Moving on…

Just like Earth has a surface and interior, so-called braneworld models depict the universe we know as a surface or “brane” (short for membrane), with one or more extra dimensions that we can’t access directly… In some braneworld models, dark energy is the result of gravitational tension between our universe and a neighboring brane.

A neighboring brane??? I think I’ll stick to the vacuum! What do these branes do (other than haunt my dreams)???

One version – the cyclic model – predicts that dark energy will dissipate at some point in the future as the branes reach a critical distance from each other, after which point cosmic expansion will reverse.

Reverse and then what? Reverse and then what?


On me?

Leaving what?

Oh good lord, Dark Energy. Haven’t you done enough damage already?

The Genius of Vermeer

“Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” Vermeer via thesmartset.com

It’s hard to imagine a more revered painter than Vermeer. But is this our conception of a great artist at work?

But the funny thing about Vermeer is that many of his paintings were probably made by the careful application of small splotches of paint, in an almost paint-by-numbers attempt to reproduce, inch by inch, the image of a camera obscura. The current film, Tim’s Vermeer, documents the process by which tech engineer and non-painter Tim Jenison paints a Vermeer using simple tricks of mirrors and a camera obscura. The result is not a Vermeer painting. But it is close enough to show that much can be accomplished with a camera obscura and a small mirror. The film proves that some of what Vermeer achieved in the area of “miraculous” realism and the capturing of minute effects of light was a more or less mechanical affair.

What do we think about this? That we appreciate his mechanical savvy? Does this sound like a genius?

There are tiny pinpricks in many of Vermeer’s paintings. He would stick a pin in the painting, attach a string to the pin, put some chalk on the string, and then make a number of erasable perspective lines on the painting with which to work out the lines of perspective.

A chalk line? Vermeer used the same basic technique my brother-in-law used to frame his remodeled basement? Where’s the genius in that?

Morgan Meis stands up for our man:

The analysis of technique and technology, however refined, never gets us to the heart of the pictures. It never explains the mystery of Vermeer’s paintings. Vermeer’s paintings were appreciated in his time. But they were not loved by many. Vermeer died a poor man. He painted few pictures, around forty. Many of them he kept around the house until he died. It is not unreasonable to assume from this that Vermeer was painting for reasons of his own. He was trying to reveal something through his pictures. The tricks of optics and the painterly skill were at the service of this revelation. It is something that we want to see, too, something that we’ve become more obsessed with as the years pass.

And just what was it? What do we see when we see a painting by Vermeer?

Vermeer was always interested in women paying close attention to some task: writing a letter, sewing, playing an instrument, or putting on jewelry. He was also interested in what happens when that concentration is broken.

Vermeer, then, was fascinated with thresholds. To put it another way, he was interested in what happens when a person is concentrating on one thing and is then brought back to a moment of self-awareness.

Meis calls this the “threshold moment” and devotes considerable time to analyzing why they are beautiful. You should read the full discussion, which I found illuminating. But I was not fully persuaded by the reasons he gives for the beauty of threshold moments:

But it might have something to do with the following. We (human beings, that is) are a hovering kind of creature. We are never entirely outside of ourselves, nor entirely inside either. We experience moments of intense concentration, and moments where concentration is broken. We sometimes perform tasks with little awareness of what we are doing, and we are sometimes, especially at threshold moments, hyper-aware of ourselves and what we are doing. Subjectivity, to put it simply, is inherently strange. The core of the ego, the “I”, is a thing that hovers around itself, never fully apparent to itself, but never fully opaque either. We catch ourselves being conscious all the time. But what is the thing that is catching the other thing being conscious? It is impossible to pin down. And yet, daily life is infused with this process. It happens over and over again throughout our waking hours. We direct our attention to something we are doing, we begin to lose ourselves in the activity and then something happens, in ourselves or in the outside world, and the self-awareness jumps back in again. Vermeer painted these moments in their variety.

Whoa. That is a very elaborate theory, and I appreciate the effort it took to devise it. But can’t it be simpler than that? Can’t it be that we’re in a constant state of becoming? Not fluctuating between self-consciousness and attention, as Meis posits, but suffused with the constant awareness that life changes. We’re always headed somewhere, or about to learn something new, or about to experience something different. We change, and things change us, and this is sort of a miraculous thing about life. It is also a reminder of its fleetingness, which is why Vermeer – why any great artist – has a touch of poignancy in every celebration.

Meis again:

Why did he paint threshold moments with such attention to the toned-down beauty and soft glory of the image of the camera obscura? Because he was convinced that threshold moments are sacred. And he had discovered painting techniques to create a new kind of sacred painting.

The painting elevates the quotidian to the sacred. With this, I completely agree. Whether that fits with Meis’s theory or mine (or one of your own) is up to you.

And the best way to decide is to head to the museum, stand before the painting, look carefully, and stop thinking.

“Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace,” Vermeer via thesmartset.com

After you’ve had your fill at the museum, or if you’re miles away from a museum and have time to fill before you get there, you can read my take on whether a novelist makes magic (the Parks v. Sacks debate). Or read one of our guest poets on the nature of genius (and the nature of not being one). Or just scrap all that and cleanse your palate with some free fiction.

Fantastic Poet Breakdown: Auden Again!

Image Credit: enotes

The last time we took a break from the Terrible Poetry Breakdown series, we focused on a fantastic poem by W.H. Auden (and the many great poets who were inspired by it). This time, we’re going to look at this amazing New York Review of Books article by Edward Mendelson, which made me admire Auden even more:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it. I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew.

And we’re off! Let the anecdotes begin. And…because there are so many, I’m going to select a few and try to evaluate their greatness on a scale of 1-10.

First up: the suffering churchgoer.

Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.

Wow. I might have done that in high school or college. Maybe my early twenties, at the latest. But Auden was born in 1907. That means that in the 1950s he would have been around 50 years old, give or take. Sleeping on a blanket in a New York hallway? I’m giving that a 9 out of 10. Next up: the friend in need:

Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.

Incredible. Very thoughtful, and points for style and modesty. On the other hand, it’s not quite up there with being willing to sleep in a hallway. Or is it? Giving away a manuscript may have meant more to him than money, though how much more, I’m not sure. I’ll give him an 8.5. Number three: the war orphans:

From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the school and college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, later with new sets of orphans, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.

These are starting to build. Orphans trump a friend’s medical condition. And the arrangement continued? Back to 9. How did he find it within himself to do all of this? And be a Fantastic Poet, writing Fantastic Poems? Next: the secret saver:

At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.

Love this one for its drama, both in the performance in the office and the save-the-day timing for the shelter. Another 9.

I’ll stop there, but Mendelson gives many more examples.

Could he be the kindest literary figure we’ve had? He’s certainly in the first tier.

Why do we care? Shouldn’t the poems stand on their own? Of course they should. But if you’re going to spend time with a poet (and by that I mean “read their poems”), it’s nice when that poet is not an anti-Semite, or a Nazi, or a traitorous fascist. (I’m not linking to those examples, they’re too heartbreaking – though you probably know who I’m talking about.)

We care when we find out the bad (which happens much too often). So for once, let’s join Mendolson and celebrate the good.

Onward and upward, people!

You can also read about Auden’s incredible run of inspiring poems with his own poem about W. B. Yeats. Or you can look at the dark side of writers in our examination of whether they are narcissists by nature. We took a look at some other poets (e.g., ShakespeareStéphane MallarméEzra Pound) in the context of their self-publishing spirit. And of course, our Terrible Poem Breakdown series looks at some less successful efforts, including this ode to a twenty-year-old “poet.” I’d like to think my own books The Race and The Promotion both have a touch of poetry to them, with the latter being specifically inspired by imagining Edgar Allen Poe working in a giant modern law firm. Enjoy!

Flannery Speaks!

Have you ever been disappointed by hearing recordings of famous authors? No? Then maybe you haven’t heard enough of them. The sound of Hemingway bloviatiang about the time he “banged” Marlene Dietrich (“that Kraut”) is not something you can ever unhear. Fear not, reader! I’m not going to link to that.

Instead, here’s an illuminating, uplifting experience: listening to the voice of Ms. Flannery O’Connor, the Queen of the Southern Grotesque and absolutely the finest author ever to inevitably surprise me with the shocking perfect word – well, of course, that’s not true. But she was the first and only one to do it with the word  Nome(!) Nome! That is an author with a genius ear, and a genius feel for her region. A genius putting her special empathic genius to work.

And here’s the genius’s voice, courtesy of Maria Popova:

I could listen to that for hours!

Here’s one more.

In this one she says Nome! Not the Nome I was referring to, but close enough. O’Connor is the best. And Popova delivers the goods, once again.

No, I’m definitely not linking to the Hemingway clip. You can check out my efforts to forge a new Grotesque genre – Midwest Grotesque? Big Law Grotesque? – by taking a look at The Race or The Promotion.

Small Press Shout-Out: Bobbledy Books!

I might be wrong, but I think we’ve only had one small press so far that was specifically dedicated to children’s books. (That, of course, was B-Corp pioneer Little Pickle Press. Go check them out if you haven’t yet!)

In any case, I’m happy to add another small-press-for-kids to our list of shout-out recipients. And what a fun one this is!

Bobbledy Books is run by a husband-wife writer-illustrator combo who “live in a barn on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with our three small kids, a rickety old cat, and a goofy blue dog.”

Is there a better photo for what you’d want from your kids-book creators than this one?

Okay, maybe this?

And this?

The Bobbledy Duo explain their background:

Over the past six years, we’ve worked together to publish more than 40 picture books for adults, including one for Chronicle Books. Now that we have three kids (Alden, 4; Kato, 2; and August, six months), we’ve decided that it’s high time to start making children’s books.

And indeed they do, with books like these:

And the unforgettable:

They also run a souped-up book club for kids, in which purchasing an annual membership gets the child “seven stuffed envelopes” a year, including three Bobbledy Books, a birthday card, a CD of children’s music, a partially completed book that kids are encouraged to finish for themselves, and other goodies. Members of the club can also write, illustrate, and submit a book of their own to a special contest. Bobbledy Books picks one to publish and send to all the other members of the club.

Here’s the winner of their first contest, Gorillas in the Kitchen, which gave lucky (and talented) child author Spencer his (presumably) first professional publication:

Bobbledy Books puts out great-looking books and their enthusiasm for what they’re doing is contagious – just what you want from two people running a small press and kids’ book club. You can put a Bobbledy smile on your face by checking out their website, their club, or their catalog.

No need for an onward and upward pick-me-up today—Bobbledy Books has my juices flowing! You can read about my own adventures in publishing, including my tips on e-book formatting for 2014, or you can travel to my new author page at Amazon.com to see the latest results.

Who am I missing? What other small presses deserve some attention? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com.

Previous Small Press Shout-Outs: