Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The loneliness of the long-distance scientist: a letter from 1979




It is difficult to be a geologist in New Zealand right now. A public that has suffered two major earthquakes in less than six months is demanding explanations for its trauma, and predictions about the future behaviour of the earth. The public demands certainty and precision - it wants a date and site for the next calamity, or else the absolute assurance that no new calamity will occur.

Unfortunately, geologists do not deal in certainty and precision. They talk of tendencies and countervailing tendencies, of possibilities and probabilities. Their sort of discourse is unfashionable, in an era accustomed to the trivial certainties of opinion polls and the sprurious pecision of google search results.

This blog tends to deal with subjects that emerge from that nebuolous area known as the humanities, rather than with the natural sciences, but I think that the historians, sociologists, archaeologists, poets and other non-scientists who hang out here will be able to empathise with the difficulties of New Zealand geologists. Haven't we all suffered, in our different ways, from the same unreasonable demands that the geologists face? I know of archaeologists who have been asked to 'prove' that the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were the first people to reach Aotearoa by unearthing Tainui, or Aotea, or one of the other waka of migration legends; I know of English teachers who have been asked to grade their high school pupils' poems on a scale of one to ten, as though the texts were entries in some pie fair.

Exasperated by the Latinate technical terms and the thoughtful qualifications that characterise the discourse of trained geologists, thousands of Kiwis have lately put their faith in Ken 'moon man' Ring, an old-fashioned pseudo-scientist with a studied resemblance to Indiana Jones' father. Ring believes that earthquakes are caused by the movement of celestial bodies, especially his beloved moon, rather than by the action of tectonic plates. Until recently he preferred to predict events which had already occurred; now, though, he has been foolish enough to forecast that Christchurch will suffer a third major quake this coming weekend. Large numbers of Christchurchers are reportedly fleeing their city, oblivious to assurances from geologists that the chance of another big quake is minimal.

The geologists and their allies in the Skeptics Society have attempted to strike back at Ring by scheduling a lunch in one of Christchurch's oldest and tallest buildings this Saturday, in defiance of the moon man's prediction. This gesture is unlikely, though, to restore the public reputation of geology; rather than be impressed by the spectacular falsification of Ring's ideas, many laypeople are likely to ask why scientists can predict a non-event but not the real thing. The popular desire for precision and certainty will not be easily sated.
The currently awkward position of Kiwi geologists, and by extension, perhaps, of 'experts' in many other disciplines, has become associated in my mind with a letter which I recently found wedged deep in an old copy of John Fowles' massive and - these days, at least - rather unfashionable novel The Magus at Onehunga's Hard to Find Bookshop.
Like my mate Jack Ross, I'm helplessly attracted to the odds and ends which sometimes attach themselves to books: to dusty ornamental bookmarks, and scribbled marginal notes, and black and white postcards showing ugly monarchs on their front and unfinished messages on their back, and tickets for disestablished tramlines or derelict ferries, and, of course, the sort of lengthy, thoughtful letters which people exchanged in the gracious era before the invention of e mail and facebook and twitter.
I'll quote the letter I found recently, and follow my quote with some comments:
Mt John University
Observatory Lake Tekapo

11 p.m., 10th July 1979
Dear Linda,
It looks as though this is going to be one of those nights. I had to give up observing an hour ago when in ten minutes flat a thin veil of haze spread across the entire sky. Most frustrating, as I had just been watching HD 118238 (one of my pet stars) undergoing a rapid rise in brightness over the previous three hours. Obviously, thought I, it's coming out of eclipse! Whoopee!...I trotted off to my trusty calculator to examine it a little more closely, and have just reached two world-shattering conclusions:

a) I was looking at the wrong star, and
b) the reason for the apparent brightening of this fiendish impostor was that the neighbouring star which I was using as a brightness comparison was dropping in brightness; the wretched comparison is also a variable and hence utterly useless. Bang go all my early results on HD 118238 - about six hours' worth. Grr. Still, nice to have discovered a 'new' variable star, even if it wasn't the one I was after. Dammit.
Things are otherwise going very well. I arrived on Saturday afternoon...I'm quite happily established in the flat now...If I gave the impression that I was a superlatively efficient packer (please say yes) on Saturday, then it wasn't a very accurate one. The packing efficiency factor is inversely proportional to the number of vital items ommitted. This time the ommissions were:
Soap. Shampoo. Toothpaste.
Toothbrush (yea! Even the old proverbial.)
Razor. Woolly hat.
Brilliant, on my return to Christchurch I should by rights have degenerated into a smelly tramp with rotting teeth and frostbitten ears, liberally sprinkled with a suitably disreputable layer of ten-day-long bristles. Yummy. However I have allowed myself the wanton extravagance of replacing the first four items at the store, and have taken to wrapping my scarf around my ears, turban-style. It inevitably falls over my right eye as I try to look into the telescope earpiece, but it serves its purpose as an insulator - as do the whiskers as the nights go by!
Skylab fever is mounting!! At least once a day I get rung up by Radio Caroline - as if I knew what is going on - to see whether I have any Expert Advice to offer the idiot public...they don't seem to realise that this is an observatory, not a satellite tracking station. I even got a UFO report on Sunday evening., courtesy of Radio Caroline once again. Had we observed a strange orange light in the sky about 10 p.m. on Friday?

Ah, thought I. Closing time. Ashburton? Twizel? "Well, I wasn't actually here then, but have you a more detailed description of this fearsome Thing?" I asked, doing my best to sound knowledgeable, just in case it was something dreadful, like a talkback show.

"The guy who saw it said it was about six times the size of a star", (cor, struth), "crossed the sky in about three seconds, then exploded".

Whew. Only a fireball, but a spectacular one nonetheless. Probably a rock about the size of a grape. I told him so.

A few seconds disappointed silence. No little green men. Then...

"So what's the latest on Skylab? Been tracking it?" Groan.

"No, our telescopes can't move that fast. I was hoping you could tell me, the last I heard it was going to land on Timaru."

End of conversation.

I wonder if they'll evacuate the place?

5 p.m., 11 June

Must finish off, or I might get the dreaded obsolete letter disease.

I spent the rest of last night finishing The Magus - finally got to bed at 7 a.m. with that feeling of devastation which usually accompanies finishing something like that. What a book - I didn't know which way to turn. I'd better not spoil it for you in case you've not yet finished. I'd be interested to compare my revised version with your original one...I wonder if this will reach you before I get back, with all these strikes. They seem so remote here. I hope life isn't getting too fraught in Chch: I'm almost tempted to to stay here!
Andrew
Andrew - I would not quote his surname, even if he gave it - wrote his letter in the winter of 1979 from the Mount John observatory, which stands near Lake Tekapo in the Southern Alps. The observatory was established as a joint venture between Canterbury University and the University of Philadelphia in 1965, and Andrew may well have been a staff member or postgraduate student from Canterbury who had been given some research time at the facility.
Andrew's time at Mount John coincided with the final days of Skylab 1, the first American satellite station. After orbitting the earth for six years and being visited by three crews, the facility began to disintegrate and re-enter the earth's atmosphere in July 1979. Some experts believed the craft would land in New Zealand, and that prospect caused both anxiety and excitement around the country. Astronomers like Andrew faced impossible demands for precise predictions of Skylab's trajectory and target.

The alarm about Skylab had a certain political context. In 1979 the Cold War was entering a new and chillier phase, as America announced plans to deploy a new generation of missiles in Europe and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to fears of nuclear war. New Zealand's burgeoning anti-nuclear movement was suspicious of America's space programme, believing that it might be linked in various ways to the nation's massive military machine. Andrew might have had some sympathy for such a view, and a little more understanding of why he took so many calls about Skylab, if he knew that the United States Air Force had been operating a satellite tracking facility adjacent to the Mount John observatory since 1969.

Skylab eventually descended on Outback of Western Australia, rather than in New Zealand, in the middle of July.

It was not only Skylab which piqued Kiwi interest in the heavens in the late '70s. At the end of 1978 and beginning of 1979 a series of unidentified flying objects were seen near Kaikoura, on the northeast coast of the South Island. Perhaps because they were spotted by commercial air pilots, and not by stoned hippies or young men in anoraks, the 'Kaikoura Lights', as the UFOs came to be known, were reported around the world. Film footage of the phenomenon still provokes discussion today.

Whether they were interested in Skylab or in UFOs, or in both, the callers to Mount John observatory appeared to have little interest in or understanding of the work Andrew was trying to perform during his sojourn there. The discovery and classification of distant stars was somehow not as exciting as the observation of unclassified flying objects near to home.

Andrew's letter is full of wit and detailed description, and yet it is also in many ways an ambiguous, unsettled text. Some of the ambiguity probably derives from the mysterious - mysterious to us, anyway - nature of Andrew's relationship with his correspondent. Andrew addresses Linda in a tone that is neither formal nor intimate. He labours to entertain her, and he labours to build up a detailed portrayal of himself, in a way that a long-term boyfriend or husband or a brother might not see fit to do.

Andrew wants to impress Linda, but he seems unsure about the best way of presenting himself, and of defending the usefulness of his sojourn at Mount John. At different stages of his letter he adopts quite different poses, and draws on different sorts of rhetoric.

Andrew celebrates his isolation high in the Southern Alps, but regrets leaving shampoo and other creature comforts in Christchurch, and worries about returning to the city as a 'smelly tramp'. When he writes about 'rotting teeth' and 'frostbitten ears' he conjures images not of tramps but of mountain and polar explorers - of heroic, suffering figures like Scott and Malory and Hillary - but he is quick to mock his own lack of appetite for cold and adventure. He talks self-depreactingly about his efforts to track a minor star with the rather prosaic name HD118238, yet works hard to distinguish himself, as an expert on the heavens and their vicissitudes, from the 'idiot public'. He despises the ignorance and alarmism of the media but attempts - half-seriously? - to use a radio station to perpetrate a hoax that will, if successful, create a bout of hysteria in the little city of Timaru.

Near the end of his epistle Andrew alludes to the strike wave which was shutting public sector outfits like New Zealand Post during the winter of 1979. The late '70s and early '80s were a period of intense industrial conflictin New Zealand, as a large and well-organised trade union movement took on a Muldoon government determined to hold down wage increases. Sitting on his mountaintop, Andrew feels 'remote' from the strikers in cities like Christchurch; perhaps he seems them, like radio talkback hosts and UFOlogists, as a part of the 'idiot public' which is making his work difficult.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Andrew's letter is his discussion of The Magus, the novel which John Fowles published to commercial success and critical controversy in 1966, and then rewrote and republished in the 1970s. Fowles' book tells the story of a young English scholar named Nicholas Urfe who makes a journey to a remote Greek island, where he spends much of his time in listless solitude. Urfe eventually meets a wealthy, worldly local who seems to possess magical powers; he becomes a sort of disciple of this man, participating in bizarre and erotic games, and eventually loses the ability to distiguish between reality and dream, reason and unreason.

Fowles' novel was dismissed as pretentious middlebrow mysticism by many critics, but it was very popular in the 1960s and '70s, when its themes seemed to resonate with the hippy counterculture. What did Andrew, who labours through most of his letter to present himself as an austere man of science, a locus of rationality amidst an 'idiot public', find to enjoy in The Magus? Did he feel that, by recommending it to the mysterious Linda, he was revealingto her another, perhaps more attractive side of his personality? And how did Andrew's letter wind up in the Onehunga Hard to Find Bookshop, tucked snugly inside Fowles' tome, almost thirty-one years later? Questions like these are unlikely, of course, to receive precise answers...

20 Comments:

Anonymous Edward said...

It has been difficult watching the whole Ring affair. It seems, at least when one gauges from the News Papers and TV News, that people do indeed prefer the precise obsurdities of pseudoscience to the measured suggestions of science. One might forgive such if it were scared residents of christchurch, but as the whole post-Campbell thing showed, it's a much wider problem. To me, it showed how quickly anti-intellectualism can flow from the NZ public. A common set of nonsense argument followed:

"give all opinions and let the public decide" (the whole 'all opinions are equal' and you don't require a background in a subject to make an informed, as opposed to uninformed, decision. The good ol days of reality being based on mob rule rather than evidence.)

"are the geologists scared of Ring? Why are they trying to hush him up?"

or, the usual non-argument "arrogant scientists. Conspiracy!"

On a side, but related note, I certainly am glad I am not a geotechnical engineer in ChCh, as a witch hunt is brewing. Go figure when you build heavy clad brick vaneer homes on unreinforced concrete slabs on reclaimed land. The voice of the real estate agent nearly always outshines the voice of the technician - you'd be surprised by the shitty homes around Kaipara and Rodney where you say to a client 'tis not a good idea' only to find a house 5 months later being built. And now I hear the govt wants to temporarily do away with certain building and resource consent items so as to rebuild faster - a political, rather than technical view heading for yet more problems (as per usual).
Yet it's all somehow the scientists fault..?

The opiates of fast politics and psuedoscience seem good bedfellows.

8:49 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

"the spurious precision of Google searches" is such a lovely phrase you should insert the missing "r".

8:54 am  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for the tip Giovanni!
It's amazing, Edward, how similar the rhetoric of Ring's defenders is to the stuff that pseudo-historians like the Celtic NZ circle come out with. The worry is that Ring, unlike Martin Doutre or Kerry Bolton, seems to have achieved a mass following. At least Ring doesn't seem to have an obnoxious political agenda mixed up with his pseudo-science...

12:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:50 pm  
Anonymous Ray said...

If you really wanted to know an email to Allan Gilmore
alan.gilmore@canterbury.ac.nz
would almost certainly give you answers
He has been at Mt John for ages and is a really nice guy

2:01 pm  
Anonymous Edward said...

What a charming anonymous. Big words. No name. Good stuff you legend.

2:03 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

aren't there questions of privacy involved here?

3:44 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

though the discussion in the letter is mainly about IDEAS, not feelings/subjective matters, so...

3:45 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

ps in 1979 I was one of those comrades who were making things hard for the arch-pig Muldoon

3:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I remember that satellite out of control. There was some concern. NASA lost control of it but Ham Radio enthusiasts actually sent many signals to it and were able to move its trajectory away from habitation as much as they could.

There is no way scientists are ever precise. Science deals only in probabilities. People who haven't studied engineering or science are under the illusion that technology and science are precise fields where things don't or "shouldn't" fail etc. Even scientists themselves fall into this trap.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are both "just one of those things" that nature dishes out and has and will do for millions of years at various unpredictable times.

Hence the Ring prediction might come true!

My recommendation re earthquakes and Tsunamis? Just forget about them and and get on with your life as if it wont happen ever. You cant control nature. They will never be able to predict such events.

In fact it would be a bit disappointing if they ever did...science is too "sucessful" for me as it is. Hence the stupidity of building Nuclear reactors (anyhwere).

11:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Fascinating and haunting letter though. I started The Magus once about 1970 I think. I found it almost disturbingly strange. But then I was in my Marxist phase and thought it wasn't helpful to "the struggle" so I "rejected" it...but I wanted to read it. May read it still.

I wonder what happened to Andrew?

I keep letters (or any other ephemera) from inside books and often wonder what happened to those who wrote them, or even those who write inscriptions.

I treat such inscriptions with deep reverence.

12:01 am  
Blogger maps said...

'I treat such inscriptions with deep reverence.'

So do I: that's my justification, I guess, for posting parts of a private (though arguably historic) letter here...

11:56 am  
Anonymous Oregono said...

The letter was written in June and July '79 and found wedged in either the original or revised copy of The Magus - you hadn't mentioned which - and hence makes me wonder if it got posted at all; and if it did, maybe it was enclosed with the book. Or perhaps it was more of an literary exercise by Andrew in the form of a letter.

Sometimes we book owners autograph our books with signatures and often date of purchase. This appears to be missing as well, otherwise no doubt you would have mentioned it.

An interesting read nonetheless.

12:03 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Alas, Oregano, I pinched the letter from the book, but refrained from buying the book!
I'm not a big John Fowles fan. I didn't read the letter until a few days after my theft, and was surprised by its length and lucidity and historical interest. I now wonder whether I should find my way back to Onehunga and lay my hands on that old copy of The Magus...

12:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so...there was THIEVERY

1:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might be worth checking out "The Magus" again, Maps, if only to confirm one detail. From (distant) memory, the intriguing girlfriend whom Urfe meets at the start of the novel and whose identity and motives drive the plot (if it can be called that) is a New Zealander.

2:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" 'I treat such inscriptions with deep reverence.'

So do I: that's my justification, I guess, for posting parts of a private (though arguably historic) letter here... "

Yes, I didn't mean you were wrong to publish it. I would have considered using texts from it...or the whole of it or I might fragment it, or whatever BUT I would still feel it had value (despite such "deconstruction" if that is what that is or might be). And I would still be concerned about the writer and so on....

7:34 pm  
Anonymous Corey said...

Dear Mr. Fowles:

I know you are dead, but your book The Magus so moved me that I thought I would write anyway. And, hey, maybe the internet is powerful enough to seep into the afterlife (or maybe the afterlife is so powerful it can see the internet…one way or another, I hope you’re reading this).

While I was reading The Magus, real life lost its meaning. The Magus made me want to skip work, stop sleeping, abandon bathing, and eat hurriedly while still reading it because that book was all that mattered. When I wasn’t reading it–those wasted moments of actual living!–I thought anxiously about it, desperate to get back. When I was reading it, everything else disappeared. I missed bus stops, I forgot time, and I was immeasurably content. All I wanted during the course of reading your phenomenal book was to continue reading it, uninterrupted, in a safe chair with a glass of water at my side. I was haunted, mystified, enchanted…ensorcelled, perhaps.

I knew absolutely nothing about you or your book before I happened upon it at the library. It was a hardback missing its dustcover so there was nothing for the book could even tell me about itself beyond conveying its own physicality: a broken spine, an appealing grey cloth binding, and the remnants of shiny letters that once identified it on the spine.
Perhaps it was the inexplicably familiar feeling of the book that caused me to take it home. Maybe it was a faint memory of your work on my mother’s bookshelves that inspired me. Or maybe it was just my inherent fascination with magic that made me thing something called “The Magus” couldn’t be bad. I can’t say what made me check it out. But I do think now that I’m glad I did.

It wasn’t until later that I found out you were one of the most praised and admired writers of the 20th century. Later I found out The Magus was considered by many one of the best novels ever written. A masterwork. And I can see why. Your book is immeasurably good. Impossibly good. It’s one of those books where you just know you’re holding something ineffably well-done. Nothing about it screams amazing, but the combination of all that nothing is irresistible.

You managed to create for your readers an experience equivalent to that being enacted by your protagonist within the book. You made reading the book as exciting as being in it, although admittedly with less immediate danger. (Unless you consider missing bus stops and being late to everything because I was reading your book dangerous. I can’t say I do in comparison with what happens in your book.) You questioned truth and shook any belief your reader had in anything or anyone in The Magus so that the ending, which I know was intentionally ambiguous, became even more unanswerable. What happened after that? I’ve been thinking about it for days and, while I know what I wanted to happen, I still have no idea of it actually did or even could, after everything else.

I cannot say, Mr. Fowles, that the entire book was as remarkable as Part Two, where most of the action takes place, but I can say that even with Part Three trailing off in a rather disappointing fashion, I am still in awe of your book as a whole. It was an unequaled experience to read it (live it, more like) for a few days and I just wanted to write and thank you for that. I honestly didn’t know books could do that. Thank you so much.

Sincerely,
Corey

8:29 pm  
Anonymous herb said...

corey on fowles sounds like richard taylor on the great helmsman mao...heh...

9:30 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Dear herb / scott / maps

Blah!

I recall a powerful response to The Magus. Corey has inspired me to read it right through this time.

One point that he makes, that is important about reading, is that often its what one associates with reading a book that 'makes' the book as well as its contents...also we all respond differrently to texts.

Also the sense that one is being talked to directly by that author, even when he or she is dead.

Fowles was considered also to be "postmodernist" by Malcolm Bradbury.

But it doesn't matter to a reader if a writer is great or not, or even if the writer is "bad", or postmodern or not; it matters how they respond, and what pleasure they take from the book.

Scotts' / Map's / herb's (for nay, they are rumoured all one!) dismissal of Fowles shows their deep and tragic philistinism..........

herb...if he is just himself and a Trotskyist believing in a pathetic political failure, and a traitor to the USSR (one Bronstein) and the working class, and who rightly copped an ice pick in Mexico where he was loafing and whoring, is a sad sad case...probably a psychotic...and also a political failure...and probably a sociopath...

But then 'Corey' himself could even be maps...we can learn from the Magus...reality dissolves...

12:08 am  

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