Sunday, January 27, 2013

On Accepting Criticism

No one is good at this, including me. We don’t like having someone tell us that our life choices, our deportment, or our work product are unsatisfactory and need fixing. As a private person, you can usually avoid criticism by keeping away from social nags and family members. But as the kind of public person who writes for a living and must regularly push out product to anyone who can read, it’s hard to avoid hearing criticism. Sometimes you even have to invite it.

I’m going through this right now, as I’ve just sent the first draft of The Professor’s Mistress, which is the sequel to my 2011 novel The Judge’s Daughter, to my circle of five or six first readers.1 I’m working on their comments now and correcting the draft. But I’ve done this all my life as a writer in a corporate setting, drafting articles and press releases and then submitting them to my in-house reviewers, subject matter experts, corporate officers, and the legal department. If you write for a living, you spend half your time writing and the other half submitting your work for scrutiny on various levels. And, unlike my circle of alpha readers, these reviewers are seldom expert—or even acceptable—writers with an understanding of the mechanics of storytelling, sentence structure, diction, and grammar. However, the way to a short, unhappy career is to look at their copious comments, roll your eyes, say “No, I think I’ll run this article as it stands,” and walk away whistling.

What kind of comments, corrections, and changes do you get? Let me count the ways …

Nolo Comprendere

First off—and future reviewers please take note—the worst comment is a simple question mark, sometimes with a circle drawn around it. Sometimes it’s an exclamation mark. The reader has a problem with the text but declines to state what he or she thinks is wrong. The meaning may not be clear. The grammar may be out of whack. The punctuation may not be to his or her liking. Or the whole thought may be just too new and exciting. But you’re the mind reader so the concern must be obvious to you.

The writer is tempted to shrug off these punctuation marks. “If you ain’t sayin’, I ain’t fixin’.” But if you leave too many people with too many questions and clearly don’t take their comments seriously, that way lies a doubling down on frustration, anger, and more marks on the page.

The key to accepting this kind of criticism—and indeed for any criticism—is to look within the text. Something’s wrong, some nerve has been touched or massaged the wrong way. So as a writer you need to spend more time with that particular sentence or paragraph.2 You quickly learn in a professional setting that your choice of words and thought structure is not sacrosanct. Text is fluid. Choices are limitless. So the least you can do is recast the sentence or the paragraph. Along the way, you might find something better than your first attempt—and at least you’re covered if the reviewer ever comes back at you.

The Frustrated Writer

Occasionally—but not more than about 50% of the time—you come across a reviewer who fancies him- or herself an excellent writer. Either that, or this person doesn’t understand the review process. This reviewer takes every sentence you write and tries to find a different way of saying it. “Oh, look! Those words [or my different words] say the same thing in this order, too.” Usually the frustrated writer finds a way to use more polysyllables, more of the words themselves, and more complex sentence structures. The result is a bulging sore in your otherwise lean and efficient prose.

The only way to deal with this reviewer—and still keep friends—is to accept some of the rewrites and do your best to correct the worst excesses, lapses, and misinformation while keeping the overall flavor and intent. If you have more than one reviewer, or if this frustrated writer doesn’t happen to be the CEO, you can usually get away with accepting and adapting about 20% of this person’s changes.

Everything at Once

Some reviewers are busy-busy people and don’t bother to read the entire article or press release before sharpening their pencils. These people read the lead paragraph, think of five or six Very Important Points they’d like to see covered up front in the article, and try to rewrite that lead with all of them popping out of an 800-word sentence.

You can’t do much with this person, because you seldom have a chance to confront your reviewers (see Note 2 below) and negotiate their comments. The good news is that such a person, having piled the whole article into the first paragraph, generally leaves the remaining body of the text untouched.

A good writer knows that the art of storytelling is the reveal: separating key thoughts from supporting information, presenting them in a logical order, and leading the reader’s brain where the important thought in the story needs to go. As someone once noted, “Time is God's way of keeping everything from happening at once.” So is good story structure.3

The best way to deal with this reviewer is to add one or two of his or her points as subsidiary clauses in your original opening, recast the lead sentence, and move on.

The Double Bind

With multiple reviewers of a single article, it’s not unusual to have one reviewer delete a passage as irrelevant, extraneous, or wrong while another reviewer is busily rewriting and embellishing that same passage. Woe to the writer in the middle.

This is one of the few cases when the writer may have to make contact with the reviewers and test their dedication to their intended changes. Someone may have to give up and let go. But usually, I’ve found, the cause of these divergent reactions is the same: the reviewers did not like or support, or simply did not understand, what the passage was saying. In one case, the response was to eliminate the source of bother; in the other, to try to fix it with a rewrite.

In any case, the writer must deal with the suspect passage, either deleting or correcting it, and then figure out what that does to the overall thought structure of the article.

Wrong-Headed Analysis

Some reviewers just go off the deep end. They don’t fully understand the article, the point being made, the choice of supporting examples, or some other aspect of what you’ve done—and their screwy and unanswerable comments and suggestions indicate this derailment. These are the most troubling of review comments, because you hope to write articles and stories that anyone with a basic command of English and an interest in the subject matter can follow and appreciate.

Here again, the point is to look within the text. You have made assumptions about the story you’re telling—as a writer, you can’t avoid assumptions, because in a universe of endless possibilities, which you are trying to make concrete and comprehensible, you have to plant a stake somewhere in space, time, and among all the possible facts. If this reader—and reviewers are first of all readers—has misunderstood, that’s a problem for you, not for him.

It helps to think through this particular reader’s background and possible aims in reviewing the work. If he or she is a lawyer, you may be dealing with that peculiar strain of paranoia, courtroom phobia, that leads a lawyer to want to remove every bit of logic and assertion from the article, like stripping the wiring and plumbing out of an old house. If the text doesn’t say anything definite, then it can’t be challenged or used as ammunition in a court case.4 With other reviewers, however, you must put on your deerstalker and play Sherlock Holmes to analyze the comments and try to find just where the text—and more likely its underlying logic—went wrong for this reader.

This deeper analysis is usually the most fruitful for a writer, and these kind of “Wha-aa-at?” comments are actually hidden treasures. While most of your other reviewers may have simply nodded and smiled while skimming over your text, this reviewer has read deeply and come to no good end. That should tell you that some fraction of future readers—a tenth? a quarter? half?—may have similar problems. You must take it on faith that the wrong-headed reader is not an isolated phenomenon. Probe for this reader’s source of dissatisfaction, and you may well find your weak links and crumbling supports. And when you fix those, you’ll have a much stronger structure.

The wider point here is that critics cannot rewrite your article or text—or your novel—for you. You do yourself no favors if you roll over, play dead, and accept their changes without question or challenge. Then the language and its underlying thought structure will start to look like a piece of Swiss cheese. The fact remains that you, as author, are the expert on the purpose of the writing and the structure and examples you’ve adopted to make that purpose clear. Where reviewers have trouble with the text, they are revealing pits and potholes you didn’t notice in the heat of first writing. Your best strategy is to look within, be honest about what you’re doing, and work toward improving the text in these areas.

From early in my career I’ve followed this pattern—looking within the text and addressing the reader’s underlying problem but not necessarily adopting his or her proposed solution—and I’ve never had a reviewer come back and complain. I like to think that learning to accept criticism in this way has made me a better writer. But it still hurts when the little darling I send out for review comes back with dents and dings.

The alternative is worse, however. If every reviewer is full of glowing praise—but of that vacuous kind which is without specifics—you know one of two things happened. Either the reviewer didn’t pay attention, or he found your whole effort so damaged and muddled that he could find nothing to do but praise it with great praise and small conscience, offer a winning smile, and leave quickly.

What about honest praise, filled with specific things the reader liked? That’s nice. That makes me smile for about a minute, sometimes an hour. That makes me relieved I haven’t done something really terrible. But praise has this one great defect: it isn’t actionable. There’s nothing you can do with “Good job!” There’s nothing you can sink your teeth into like an honest dose of criticism.

1. These are some of my fellow writers, friends, and a couple of family members whose opinions I’ve come to trust. Generally, I’m pretty good at self-editing on the period-and-comma level and for making sense of a sentence. But I still need a second (third, fourth, fifth …) set of eyes to tell me about parts of the story that don’t work or need to be added. I may be blind in these areas because I’m carrying those parts in my head and not on the page, or because like all human beings I’m not as omniscient as a writer—who plays God to a universe only two palm-widths wide—must be.

2. No, you don’t get to write back to that reviewer and ask for an explanation. That will only get you a shrug and “Well, I just didn’t understand it” or “I just didn’t like it.” You don’t want to get into an argument on those grounds.

3. However, the journalist’s time-honored 5W lead (Who, What, Where, When, Why) and inverted pyramid structure come close for the hurried reader. What most people who don’t write regularly don’t understand is that not every article is an exercise in journalism. Sometimes you have to pose questions, raise issues, work from the general to the specific, and leave some key facts for a punch line. A good article is a path to a conclusion, not simply the report on an event.

4. Of course, dealing with a legal reviewer on this issue is almost hopeless. If his preference is that no article should be written—and he’s merely exercising the review privilege to kill it in the messiest way possible—you may have to go back to first principles and decide whether the subject is worth addressing at all.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reversing the Controls

A 1952 British film, Breaking the Sound Barrier, directed by David Lean and starring Ralph Richardson and Nigel Patrick, showed a fictional test pilot at the moment of maximum stress—both for both the aircraft structure and the movie plot—reversing the plane’s controls in order to recover and fly at supersonic speeds. This is a screenwriter’s fantasy, because no such reversal is required to break the sound barrier in real life.1 Yet the story appeals to something in human nature: when all else fails, do it backwards.

I know of only two situations in which reversing the controls is not just a good idea but also mandatory.2 One is when sailing a boat with a tiller attached to the rudder’s king post. In that case, when you want to go left, you push the tiller over to the right, and vice versa.3 This is not a sudden reversal under stress, just the way the mechanism operates.

The other situation is when operating a motorcycle at speed. Most people who get on a motorcycle without previous training will figure out the steering by instinct and body language, and then they imagine the maneuver is accomplished mostly by leaning the bike to one side or the other. But this is wrong. Motorcycles actually have two modes of steering. When pushing the bike around in the driveway or ghosting along at walking speed in the parking lot, the front wheel tracks much the same way as a bicycle or tricycle: turn the handlebar to the left to go left, right to go right. So a motorcycle works just like a bicycle, right? Wrong!

At a certain low speed—depending on the motorcycle’s size and steering geometry, but generally between 10 and 20 mph—those big wheels and heavy tires become gyroscopes. This effect adds to the bike’s stability but completely changes its steering characteristics: the machine goes into counter steer. At these higher speeds, if you pull on the left handgrip to turn handlebar to the left, you are actually precessing the gyroscope that the front wheel has become, and the bike veers to the right. You can make this direction change entirely without leaning your body, although if you’re heading into anything like a 90-degree turn, you’d better lean into the corner to counterbalance those centrifugal forces. The mantra with the handlebar then becomes: “Push left, go left. Push right, go right.”4 The controls are literally reversed.

But aside from the esoterica of steering sailboats and motorcycles, most of the time the world works the way we think it should and the way we were taught at our parent’s knee and in school. That, after all, is why they taught us these “home truths.” So that, in moments of stress and confusion, the right way to save ourselves would also be the obvious way.

What do I mean by “home truths”? Simple things to control and stabilize your life. Things like “Work hard,” “Pay your bills,” “Save your money,” “Be good to your friends,” “Think before you speak,” “Stand up for what you believe,” and—new favorite on coffee mugs—“Keep calm and carry on.” These are the mantras that carry a person through everyday life.

And yet there is a longing in the human soul to occasionally kick over the traces, break out of the everyday, throw away the rulebook, and go a bit crazy. I think such an impulse struck most of America—at least the male part of it—in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of thousands went out to enlist. It was a heartening spectacle of patriotism, but I think some deeper, darker feeling was also at work. The world had suddenly changed. Tomorrow would not be like yesterday. Each person’s life was suddenly thrown into the balance to be weighed and judged. The old rules simply no longer applied.

Something similar, but without the immediate prospect of war and death, happened in the mid-1960s when the “counterculture” came into vogue. Suddenly millions of young, college-age people—under an impulse we still have trouble understanding—kicked over the traces. Well-brought-up, middle-class youngsters who had been taught to study hard, bathe daily, dress neatly, and live sober, industrious lives suddenly went in for long hair, beads, tie-dyed clothing, sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. The mental pressure of the Vietnam War had something to do with it, but it’s strange that a small war, barely declared, in a tiny country on the other side of the world could have such mind-bending power. Sudden disgust for the middle-class lifestyle also had something to do with it, but it’s bizarre that such moral angst should arise so quickly and change people’s lives so completely.

It’s as if a whole generation—well, not everyone, not me, and not everyone I knew back then, but at least a significant part of our generation—decided to reverse the controls. Industry became sloth. Sobriety became a drug haze. Casual sex and personal decadence became the cozy norm. Clear thought became fuzzy emotion. Tune in. Drop out. I could understand the feeling but what escaped me was the compelling reason, the structural stress that, like breaking the sound barrier or facing a world at war, caused people to suddenly decide that reversing the controls and going into free fall was a good thing.

I have a creeping sense that we’re headed for the same kind of reversal of logic today. Somehow, somewhere our country crossed a line. I think it may have been when the national debt went from reckoning in the billions of dollars to a sudden, common reckoning in trillions. A million dollars is not so much anymore, and billion is the unit of measure we’ve used for the debt for decades now. But a trillion? That’s a new level. That’s the size of some countries’ whole economy. That’s the other side of the sound barrier.

In response, our politicians and economists, the people to whom we entrust the nation’s future, seem to have gone crazy and just … reversed the controls. The only solution seems to be spending more money, printing more money,5 borrowing more money. The old rules don’t apply. It’s a deranged time.

And what stands as crazy on a national level reflects as crazy on a personal level, too. During the last decade, people went out and bought houses they couldn’t afford, bought upscale cars, television sets, furniture, gadgets and gizmos, baubles, bangles, and beads that were beyond their means, so they bought them on credit. They took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in education loans and then spent their college years on binge drinking and partying. No one I know personally did this or recommended this, you understand. But “Spend like there’s no tomorrow” seems to have been the national vibe for the past dozen years.6 It was in all the papers.

But home truths still apply. The world has been around a long time. Humans have been walking it in their present shape and with their present mental faculties for about 50,000 years. Fathers and mothers beget sons and daughters, and they try to teach them how to survive. In the past two centuries we’ve seen some remarkable scientific, technical, and social advances, and the future is going to be even more strange. But the old rules mostly still apply. We’re not breaking any kind of sound barrier here, and reversing the controls would be stupid. Reversing the controls is just going to make us dead.

1. General Chuck Yeager, the man who actually broke the sound barrier in 1947, was eventually asked if he did it by reversing the controls. His reply was to the effect: “No, ma’am, if I did that I would be dead.”

2. I’m not talking here about the more delicate art of working a problem backwards. That’s a whole separate topic, covered in Working Backward from May 15, 2011.

3. If the king post is operated by a cable system and a steering wheel, then the mechanism takes care of the left-right orientation and the boat steers like a car.

4. As noted above, most of the time this is instinctual. The trouble comes when an inexperienced motorcyclist gets into a tight spot and actually starts thinking. If he or she says, “I’ve got to turn left here,” and pulls on the left handgrip—the bike will go right—usually right off the road. If the conscious intention is to go right and the cyclist pulls the right handgrip, the bike veers into oncoming traffic. (All of this is, of course, from the American point of view, where we drive on the right side of the road.) The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has saved many lives by teaching new motorcyclists specifically about counter steer.

5. Under the guise of “quantitative easing.”

6. If you want, you can blame end-of-the-world syndrome. For two generations now, we’ve had nuclear holocaust, acid rain, global warming, Y2K, the Mayan calendar, or whatever catastrophe is popular this month. Each one promises to come and carry everything away. So why be prudent and save for the future? But, like the mind-bending power of a little war in Vietnam, I just can’t believe that so many people are so … flimsy about their appreciation of life and how it is to be lived.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

On Being a Contrarian

When the whole world’s going left, I tend to go right. When the crowd is stampeding for the front door, I look for a way out through the kitchen. When everyone is dancing to rock-n-roll, I listen to classical music. And when people are dumping stocks in favor of real estate, I hang on to my shares. I’m a contrarian.

This is not a choice, you understand. It’s not necessarily a reasoned response. And it’s certainly not a sign of greater intelligence or foresight. It’s more like an aversion, a phobia, a character defect. When I’m caught up in traffic with a hundred thousand cars that are going my way at a snail’s pace—I feel foolish. I don’t belong in herds. Herds are foolish. Herds get slaughtered. Get me out of here.

My first conscious memory of the contrarian lifestyle was in junior high school. You get a lot of firsts in the seventh and eighth grades—at least when I was growing up. First time you take different subjects in different classes. First time you’re offered a foreign language to learn. First time you begin to really notice girls. And, in the case of group action, the first time you get called into a special assembly known as the Friday afternoon pep rally.

As the youngest class in our combined junior-senior high school, we seventh graders were led into the gymnasium and seated on the floor just behind the basketball hoops. Row on row, sitting cross-legged, elbow to elbow, wondering what comes next. Then the marching band starts playing up in the bleachers, the cheerleaders start hopping on the main floor, and everyone starts screaming. But I’m sitting there looking around like a Galapagos tortoise at Mardi Gras. Very interesting, but … My best friend, who’s sitting beside me, turns, grabs my jacket, and yells in my ear, “Scream, Thomas!” I look at him in disbelief and ask—in a normal voice that gets lost in the noise—“Why?”

Maybe I’m missing a gene, some combination of brain proteins that would allow me to read and respond to the wavelength of the people around me.1 But I do feel the power of crowds, and it makes me nervous. When the foot stamping and the yelling start, I sense that the screaming, the rock throwing, and the rending of victims with bare teeth and fingernails are not far away. I can deal with people in ones and twos, but holiday crowds, packed stadiums, and mobs make me want to head for the exits.

Maybe I understand instinctively that—at least in some people—the individual, the personality, the web of rules learned long ago, the kaleidoscope of ambition, fear, shame, and hope that spins the human mind, whatever it is that makes John unique and different from Bill or Tom or Mary is an inherently unstable mechanism.2 Put in the context of a thousand other voices, surging emotions, stamping feet, and reaching hands … it frays, flies apart, dissolves, and surrenders to the movement of the mass.

And sometimes I think that’s just an excuse. That people in a crowd simply look around, calculate, and decide: “Who will know? If I am just one of a thousand other people who break into that store, or charge that police line, or rip apart that scapegoat—where is the blame? No one will see just me. No one will prosecute. I can do murder and no one will remember that I was part of it.” As people can take pride in the building of a cathedral or winning of a war, even though their part was small and contributory, so they can shed the shame and blame of taking part in a mob. Everyone feels good, no one feels bad, and we all go home.

Maybe, for me, there is no such release of the self and self-control. My sense of responsibility to the web of rules, my focus on the kaleidoscope of hope and fear, shame and ambition, is so strong that I cannot believe someone is not always watching. My parents, teachers, family members, and culture heroes—the people who socialized and shaped me by taming my childish will, and who are all mostly ghosts themselves by now—still look over my shoulder and render judgment. And I—whatever the “I” or “self” might be, even if it’s only a ghost—also look over my own shoulder, judge my actions, and compare them to the rules that I recognize as civilized behavior and the responsibilities of personal honor. I cannot forget that actions always have consequences, and those consequences are personal, immediate, and important—even if they are merely figments of the mind associated with shame and self-loathing.

I cannot imagine being a contrarian without having a strong sense of individuality. You have to believe in yourself, your honor, your destiny, your sense of self-worth if you are going to fight upstream against the crowd, close your ears to the thousand whispers that say, “It’s all right. No one cares. Go with the flow. Go along to get along. Don’t let the side down. Don’t make waves. Be a pal. Be one of the guys.”

Contrarians make poor team players, lousy employees,3 and terrible soldiers. While everyone else is listening to the coach, the boss, or the sergeant deliver the playbook, the plan for the day, or the tactical objective, you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “Yeah, but what if we did it this way? Couldn’t we do it better?” Coaches, bosses, and sergeants hate that. It’s like you think you’re special or something.

Contrarians make pretty good engineers, inventors, and artists. It’s not as if we can’t hear criticism, take suggestions, or heed warnings. But we filter all of that outside material through a 0.002-inch mesh in our heads which asks, “Is that what I really think and believe? Is that solution really going to work? Is that opening where the danger really lies?” Between the contrarian’s head and the outside world is a hesitation, a consultation with the memory of those early parents, teachers, and culture heroes, a bad memory of the times when we just shut up and went along, and a fearful consciousness that if the plan we recommend, the design we submit, or the art we create falls short, then no one will take the blame but ourselves.

Contrarians are seldom impulsive. Oh, we might make a decision on the spur of the moment: a purchase that arises opportunely at the cash register, a career move that appears suddenly in the pursuit of other work, a rapid change of course or behavior. But in almost every case the impulse is backed by days, weeks, or sometimes months of thinking about a problem, need, or failure, mentally trying on possible solutions, or considering our dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. Then what looks like impulse is merely the summation of long simmering thoughts, usually in the context of suddenly finding the obviously right solution.4 Or, as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Contrarians have a rich interior life. It’s not always a wonderful and optimistic interior, as our kaleidoscope is fully loaded with feelings of shame, fear, and doubt. But we are not barren. In fact, we often have too much to consider and weigh before taking action. We console ourselves that a missed opportunity is less to be regretted than a bad choice or a wrong action. The world is full of opportunities, if one can only perceive them. The world is less forgiving of mistakes and blunders.

Contrarians are not easy people to know. They sometimes seem to be obstinate, stubborn, wrong-headed, and obtuse. If they can’t immediately explain why they don’t want to walk along with the crowd, they may appear to be stupid and even vacillating. Contrarians are used to being called fools. Walking against the flow usually brings you into collision with the mass of men.

But more often than not, we discover treasures, ideas, and opportunities that others will miss. We look into the corners that others overlook. We try doors that no one else has opened. And—less often, although not unknown—we stumble upon whole continents that no one has ever seen or imagined.

We are the waywards and malcontents that reassure everyone else in the path they have chosen. And in doing so, we contrarians bring context to life.

1. I use the same excuse for my atheism. Whatever genetic complement and neural adaptation that lets people feel the presence and hear the whispered words of God, angels, ghosts, and demons, I seem to lack. I walk in a forest and appreciate the trees, the sunlight, the scents of growing things all around, the beauty of the moment—but no special voice tells me to take heed and attend. I sometimes think of this as a kind of deafness or blindness. Something I lack, rather than something the mass of men around me are imaginatively inserting into the moment.

2. The eastern religions would tend to agree. Certain sects go a long way in arguing that there is no such thing as the “self.” The web, the kaleidoscope, the spin are all an illusion. The notion of a coherent life, a person, a “me” that continues from day to day and year to year is just a phantom construct overlying what are really separate moments, fragments of memory, incidents, and instances that no longer exist except in memories that are undergoing constant editing and revision. We are all ghosts rattling around inside the braincase of what is really just a multi-celled organism driven by the collective needs and impulses of all those randomly activating cells. However, that’s not a view I favor. It reeks of Skinnerian behaviorism. It reduces a man to the spiritual level of a muskrat. To believe it is to hate yourself.

3. At least in the sort of corporate environment that rewards congeniality and compliance and where it’s more important for you to fit in than provide the right answer. If you’re in the sort of company where you have to study your boss, his or her boss, and the chief executive like an anthropologist trying to figure out what cockamamie new idea will bring a smile to his or her face this week, then work to be the first to suggest that idea, regardless of its costs, fitness of purpose, or contribution to the corporate well-being, then you do well to have an enduring interest in mass psychosis and herd dynamics. And if you can’t adapt to that—then run for the exits.

4. Frank Herbert captures some of this in the Dune cycle: “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” In that delay is a measure of cogitation and consideration.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (II)

Last week I presented my layman’s understanding of gravity—or rather, the great gaping holes at the center of our two competing theories about physics, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, where a complete explanation of this force should be. We can write grammatical sentences using the word “gravity,” measure it and predict its effect on objects, and use those measurements in practical equations. But we still don’t know how it works.

Perhaps that’s because we still don’t have a complete definition of two other aspects of nature that we can talk about, quantify, and solve for but don’t really understand. These are the silent partners of gravity: space and time.


For most of us, space is the definition of nothingness. Go out among the stars, or further out among the galaxies, corral a cubic meter of space, capture and exclude the handful of atoms representing stray gases and dust fragments—and what you have left is “empty space.” Photons may pass through that cube. Gravity fields may affect those photons and anything else that passes through it. But what’s left after your extraction is pure nothing.

Early physicists—people who now rank with alchemists on the scale of seriousness—posited that since light acted like a wave, empty space must contain some invisible material that was being agitated, in the same way that an ocean wave propagates in water. They called this invisible, conjectural substance “luminiferous ether.” That died in 1887 when two men, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, conducted an experiment that measured the speed of light using an array of mirrors mounted on a turntable. Since the Earth is moving around the Sun, and the Sun is moving around the galaxy, then the Earth and the turntable must be moving through this natural element, the ether, in a certain direction. So, when the speed of light was measured with the turntable in a certain position, it ought to be moving faster than when the table was turned 180 degrees—like a wave going up or down in a moving stream. And when the table was turned by 90 degrees to either side of that apparent flow, then the light ought to move at an intermediate speed. What they found instead was no change in speed at all. This led to understanding light as having properties of both a particle and a wave, or a particle moving with a wavelike oscillation.1

The Michelson-Morley experiment tended to prove that space was really, really empty. But Einstein maintains that gravity can curve space (or, more properly, a four-dimensional continuum known as “spacetime”). And physicists may suppose even higher-order dimensions. As you can fold and crumple a two-dimensional sheet of paper in the three dimensions of the space that we commonly experience, so our three dimensional space may be presumed to fold and crumple at even higher dimensions. This allows for faster-than-light travel by punching between two nearby folds. It also allows for the supposed existence of naturally enduring “wormholes” through these higher dimensions.

So, apparently, “empty” space can have structure. And this structure can be complex at dimensions we do not ordinarily experience, except through thought experiments and mathematics.

More than that, the universe we can detect appears to be expanding. It is not only expanding under the impulse of the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago, but accelerating even faster, so that eventually nearby galaxies will vanish, then our own galaxy’s stars, then even our next-door neighbors, and finally the molecules of our brains—all ripped apart and carried away by expanding space. To account for this situation—where all the visible matter and dark matter of the universe is not enough to close it through mutual attraction—physicists propose a new characteristic of empty space: dark energy, sometimes called “vacuum energy” or “zero-point energy.” This energy supposedly manifests as hypothetical particles, virtual particles that always appear as pairs of identical yet opposing bits of matter and antimatter. These virtual particles come into existence and instantaneously annihilate each other before they can be detected. Space is not just empty, it’s teeming with bursts of energy that no one can see.2

So space has structure, it can be warped, curved, bent, folded, and punctured. It’s multiplying faster than we can measure it. In fact, we can only measure it because our rulers and other measuring systems are expanding (and curving and folding) right along with the underlying “fabric” of space.

I don’t think we understand “space” yet.


Everyone knows about time. Our watches click off seconds, hours, days and on to the calendar and then to the millennia of history. We can set a clock by the predictable oscillations in the electromagnetic energy of certain atoms. We can measure infinity by the fact that no one has ever detected a proton naturally decaying into two or more lighter particles. All the protons that condensed out of the Big Bang just short of 13 billion years ago are still with us and will remain with us until the universe fades out in the Big Sigh.

We think of time as a fourth dimension added to the three that we can observe from one isolated point of view: left-and-right, expressed by mathematicians as x; up-and-down, expressed as y; and in-and-out, expressed as z. So there should also be a before-and-after dimension, expressed as t. If I stand utterly still at a certain point x, y, z, I am still moving along the dimension t from the past into the future.

You can use time in grammatical sentences governed by verb tenses. You can tell stories about a hypothetical past beyond your own experience, as well as a future that has not yet occurred. You can use t in an equation—most often represented in physics equations as that “/s” for “per second,” the second being the universal reduction of all physicists’ time in International System (SI) units—and you can even assign to t positive and negative values.3

But time is not like a dimension. Although I can stand still in reference to point x, y, z, I cannot stand still with respect to t—unless, that is, I move at the speed of light and give up all pretense to a static x, y, z. I cannot experience the past except in memory, which is encoded in chemicals in my brain, or in stories, which are encoded in words interpreted by my brain. I can anticipate and think about the future, but I cannot rush into it. I can only experience the instant we call “now.”

Einstein maintains that time is relative to speed, but there’s a catch: time is always subjective and related to a particular frame of reference. If I move faster on a scale that approaches the speed of light, my personal time would seem to slow—but only from the viewpoint of an outside observer moving at a different speed in a different frame of reference. When I travel exactly at the speed of light, anyone looking through the window of my spaceship sees me frozen in mid-gesture, but from my own point of view I’m acting normally and still experience time at the same steady crawl as if I were standing still. For Einstein and modern physicists, any absolute measure of time does not exist: it’s all subjective, all based on your frame of reference. “Standard clocks” cannot exist, because the rate at which the mechanism ticks, or the atomic nuclei oscillate, depends on the speed at which the clock is traveling.4

So, for right now, our understanding of the most common aspects of both our science and our daily experience—time, space, and gravity—remains highly theoretical, conjectural, and mathematical. Most physicists would maintain that a common-sense understanding of these things is impossible because we humans inhabit a single viewpoint in space and time, that real understanding requires the flexibility and pervasiveness of mathematics. They would say that a person who does not understand the mathematics of Quantum Mechanics or General Relativity cannot grasp the true meaning of these things. But perhaps that’s because the underlying nature as we understand it only exists as conjectures in theory and descriptions in mathematics.

I take a different tack. I think the nature of existence, expressed in what we can see of time, space, and gravity, can be ultimately understood—but we need new ideas. The conceptions we’ve used to date have stretched about as far as we can push and pull them—like trying to cover too much bed with too little sheet. We don’t have the right words to adequately describe what we can sense about nature because we don’t yet have the right concepts. We don’t have the right mathematics yet, either.5

The fit of our minds and imaginations, of our language and mathematics—and ultimately of our clever fingers and the machines they can create—to the world that we can now see and experience is still inexact. We can measure space, time, and gravity. We can use those words in meaningful sentences and those measurements in equations. But we are still a long way from understanding exactly what’s going on out there.

1. The water in an ocean wave, on the other hand, does not move over long distances. Individual water molecules may rise and fall with each wave, moving in short ellipses from the surface to some point below it and back up again, but the molecules themselves do not travel forward along with the wave crest. The mass of water itself is not traveling from the deep ocean to the shore.

2. You’re wondering, at this point, whatever became of high-school physics, where “matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” Well, that’s true only inside a closed system. Open your imagination and your mathematics to a larger system composed of multiple, unseen dimensions, and anything is possible.

3. And yet physicists still puzzle over “time’s arrow.” Time only moves forward. Time has never been observed, even in the strange mechanics of Einsteinian spacetime, to move backward. The arrow does not appear to be a function of speed or frame of reference: you can’t outrun time’s arrow, and no manipulation of field forces will reverse it.

4. And yet physicists still accept the second as the universal measurement of time—but only for events, experiments, and observers who are standing still in relation to one another.

5. Mathematics is not a closed system, and our understanding and use of it is not yet complete. The Romans functioned perfectly well with their counting system based on concatenated symbols (I, II, III, IV, V, VI …) in base ten and their fractions in base twelve. But their technology only got so far with it. The Arabs—and then western civilization as a whole—got farther by using a more complex system involving ten symbols and a series of decimal placeholders.
       Then thoughtful analysis of that tenth placeholder, the symbol “0,” as also standing at the starting place below “1” took arithmetic beyond mere finger counting into the realm of accounting for and manipulating absence or nothing. From that starting point, we next discovered negative numbers, which can be used to express hypothetical losses.
       Our current mathematics uses calculus to deal with advanced concepts like sums and fractions of undefined quantities (e.g., discrete segments under a continuous curve) and uses geometric functions called tensors (e.g., scalars and vectors) to quantify elements and motions in a hypothetical space. Each level of mathematical discourse opens up new concepts. My faith is that, first, further levels remain to be explored, and second, those concepts can ultimately be explained to the rest of us in words, even if those words cannot be manipulated as easily as the mathematical symbols they describe.