Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.



Half Magic

1033282 Long before J. K. Rowling began writing the wildly popular Harry Potter series of books on children and magic, Edward Eager wrote a similar themed book in the 1950s. In my child’s mind at that time, Eager’s book, Half Magic, was one of the most remarkable and memorable books I’d ever read. In fact, it is currently rated by some as #54 among the top 100 children’s books.

The fact that it was featured in our elementary school’s library did nothing to detract from the read. After all, that was the joy of school libraries — the ability to browse through the rows of books waiting for discovery.

There was another library book I remember, about a barnstorming pilot who for one reason or another kept crashing, and yet somehow surviving. It was exciting reading, and surprisingly did not deter me from my love of flying. But I digress.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to identify Half Magic and download it, and read it. Presto, change-o, just like that!

But, it’s not at all what I remembered.

Here’s the thing about memory; it is ever so malleable, especially in children. All I really remembered in my teenage and adult years was that there was something in it about people who were half white and half black. Frankly I’d forgotten the whole magic theme.

What had colored my memory was the power of a vivid image found on the cover of that book, and the fact that it was popular during a time when racial integration was a frequent topic in the news. Somehow, those mental bits merged into what I believed the book to be. Many years after reading it I had the curious impression that it was a morality play of sorts, where people were in fact half black and half white.

Well, if that happened, racial profiling would be nonexistent, wouldn’t it? If you were of mixed race, with your body literally halved by distinct racial characteristics, then you obviously couldn’t be bigoted. And for that reason I held that book in high esteem. But due to my fragmented memory, I despaired of ever finding it again.

And then there was Google. While I may razz Google a bit for their intrusiveness, I do consider it a blessing to be able to Google the words “half black and half white” and see before me a panoply of related images. There, buried in the search results, was the image of a book cover that I instantly recognized from so long ago.

I had no conscious memory of it, but yet I recognized it among all the other less relevant images. (Yes, there really is such a thing as  subconsciousness, just in case you wondered.)

Happily, the 50th anniversary edition of that book was recently published, so the book is available for another generation of young minds looking for magic with a moral. And indeed, it really is a morality play of sorts. But sadly, someone felt the need to modernize the cover, which is now far more visually complex. But I wonder; is it memorable? HalfMagic

If I had a book cover, I’d want that cover to be memorable enough to transcend the decades, and jump out of my seemingly inaccessible memory like a Jack-in-the-Box long after all other memories of the book had faded.

I am patiently waiting for my 6-year old grandchild to be still long enough to let me read her this book. As for the rest of you, real childhood magic as portrayed in Half Magic may not be as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hogwarts School, and the dark Lord Voldemort, but it seems a lot more believable.

For more information on this memorable book: