When We Cease To Understand the World

This last year two scientists working on Quantum Mechanics won the Nobel Prize. Quantum Mechanics was invented by Heisenberg as part of his “uncertainty principle”. It is a bizarre field. How is it possible that, at the quantum level, the ‘real’ world around us breaks down? That effect can come before cause, that time can move in either direction? That something is not anything until it is measured, observed, at which point we give it substance. But only for a second (a second, being much too long a length of time).

This book is a fictionalized account of individual stories of great men of the mind who were working, mostly 100 years ago when things were still invented. People whose work we are still trying to understand and replicate 100 years later? It’s almost as if humanity pushed and fought its way to an apex, a ridge of sorts at which point fate or destiny or providence or God gave us a group of people who had the answers. I went parasailing once in the Andes, and my guide (I’m not very good) said “We are going to sail here, just above and on this side of the ridge. If we go too far that way,” and he pointed “the wind, like a wave, will pummel us over the other side.” That moment, those ideas – our singularity. Sail high, risk the winds, or float leisurely and come to rest on the same valley floor we had just driven from. Or, better said, we could either shoot for the stars (literally) or fall back into ourselves.

We fell back into ourselves. “China wants to get to the moon by 2030. But we will beat China to the moon!” NASA just announced, confidently. Weren’t we supposed to be to Mars, at least, by now? Um, the 1950s called – they want their space race back.

Nicola Tesla (not in this book), at the very beginning of electrification, was building a wireless electric grid. He also had built an electric car (I’ve seen it, you can see it – or something like it – at the car museum in Luray caverns in Virginia). Wireless electric power, harnessed from the unlimited electric power in the atmosphere to power cars? Something like the electricity imagined in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” that powers Galt’s Gulch. But instead, we started burning dead dinosaurs – and thanks to the tremendous corruption of Edison and ‘big oil’ we still are, 100 years later. But only after filling the atmosphere with carbon and sparking war after war after war in the third world. But dead dinosaur juice won’t take you to Mars – although we just might beat China to the moon by 2030!!

The main premise of this book (which is fiction), and which I accept, is that there is something, some guiding principle, some “heart of the heart” – which all physicists who are basically our scientist philosophers – are looking for. They are men and women gifted specially by some spark inside them that causes them to be able to see things; how they see it, where it comes from – that is unclear. A mixture of luck and hard work, I’d guess. But also something inside them that allows them to see further, deeper. But it is something that inevitably destroys them; it is an idea that is too big, too profound, too singular. They end up, like Tesla, mad. While the rest of us just wander around, smart monkeys watching reality TV shows and complaining when the internet – which we don’t even understand – slows down for a minute.

Back to my original point, and a previous post I wrote. Our world is much more cyclical than we believe. Progress is (mostly) an illusion, and personal (moral) progress is actually wrong – we don’t progress as people, we digress – we become more corrupt – we become more wicked (don’t believe me just read the Bible; start in Genesis, that is what pretty much the whole book is about). But each cycle finds humanity trying to push beyond that “singularity” (for lack of a better term); to overcome diminishing returns as they settle in, to overcome the entropy of large populations. This time, our moment was likely in the 1920s and 30s – when the best minds to ever exist were meeting in Europe and the US discussing the nature of things. They were making radical discoveries, and if ever there were to be a breakthrough – into the stars and beyond, it was then. Instead, we started WWII and killed everybody.

This is why our writers are no longer Jules Verne, highlighting in fiction what our scientists were actually achieving. They are instead, Susanne Collins and James Dashner and Kass Morgan – dystopianism reigns – while our greatest minds spend their limited time and money trying to make Twitter profitable as the world comes apart.

But that’s OK we’ll try again in about 110,000 years.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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3 Responses to When We Cease To Understand the World

  1. Lynda Shafer says:

    Interesting, and plausible take on the direction from where we are now to why we got here. I think I would name the time period between the mid 1800’s to now The Gaslighting Age. Can we believe anything? Trust anything? Those disinclined to accept at face value what the ruling class (government) professional class (propagandists), the expert class (scientists), the chattering (media) class and the upper (elite) class tell us to believe, question everything.


  2. Of all the things I have believed, my belief in skepticism is the one that has not failed me. Now, this may, on the surface, appear to be a pessimistic attitude but it turns out to be liberating. Science is skeptical, that’s the basis for its value and power. We all need to believe in something….whether it is God, ourselves, or rationality/science. Don’t get me wrong, I do not denigrate belief in God, it was (and is) central to my life and my relation to my fellow humans. You can’t go wrong starting from there and holding yourself accountable to something higher than your own desires.

    The world of science has its share of egoists who want their names remembered. Some turn to deception when scientific method thwarts their bias. Time pulls back the curtain eventually – aided by greed and pride. What Earth-shattering discoveries are left lying on the bench when money and fame are at stake? None!

    Fine tune your bullshitometer to see the truth whether you’re dealing with science, politics, or your fellow human.


    • Lynda Shafer says:

      You echoed and eloquently enlarged up my comment beautifully. As it stands, at my age, the only unquestioning faith I have is in God. All others, trust but verify.


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