Of the Coming of Men

In the days of old there were three houses. The Noldor, disciples of glory and doom: it is their story we hear, for it is thanks to them there are stories. The Teleri, inheritors of longing: yearning for the sea is their greatest gift. The Vanyar, the people of unity and peace: the people history would love but could never know. And then the first men came into the west, and Finrod found them as they camped at the foot of the mountains and felt love stir in his heart. But he bade his time awhile, and watched from the shadows as they made camp.

They laid their harp by the fire, and surrendered their big, cold thoughts to its crackling. And the elf walked into the company of these men whose dreams were so much younger than his own. His dreams were wrapped in twilight thunder and the shade of silent woods, and he loved this people with their stars of ideas, whose dreams were clean as swords.

***

I am a Noldo, and I have held my sword to the stars and sworn its keenness to their light. Ours is a song of the night, a symphonic loneliness that each of us inherits and makes his own. We are disciples of glory and doom, and we have given our lives to fate and song. I have slept evenings beneath the spray of stars, and woken to the flickering emptiness of nights. While somewhere beyond the smoke-clad trees… Where is the day? We knew not the happiness of a peaceful dawn, but we have burned with a splendid fever, and kindled the waiting dreams of fate to song and flame. Could anything be too high a price to pay?

I am Telerin, and I have walked wrapped in the blue thunder of thought by anxious seas, steeped in their silent sheen, seeking to learn what it was I longed so deeply for. I have cast my eyes on distant shores, and turned from my past and my land: I have sighed for the ineffable and sought to weave the infinite music of the waters into the earthbound strings of my harp. I do not seek myself any more, for I have no self: it was lost amid the gleaming waters long ago, and I am not certain how to find it. What name, what certainty could bind you together against the sweeping waves? How do I proffer my sword to any cause or any truth when I have known how little all our truths are before the beauty of that infinite we cannot know? And so I am drawn to the littlest things, that need not flee before the greatness of the great because they do not seek to stand ahead of it: the warmth of silent rocks and the grace of white ships, the immortal dances of words and the silent pressure of a hand. I cannot drink of the oath-cup with my brothers, but I shall stand with my brothers and wish that I knew how to fall with them.

I am of the Vanyar too, and I have known the calm of silent mountains and warm dwellings untouched by the fever of exacting dreams. I have known what it is to know and be glad, to lay doubt aside and take comfort in companionship and song. But I have moved far from that land, and now I cannot know that rest. My soul was forged in pride and loneliness and doubt; they are the strings to my harp, the keenness of my sword, the flame of which I light my song. I would wish my destiny on no-one else, but it is irrevocably mine and I would wish myself no other: I cannot live within the light. But I know it is there, and my heart is glad to know it: I would swear my smoke-tinged sword to the service of that peace, though it is not mine.

***

And the first men stirred to the sight of Felagund with his song of dusk and his clear northern eyes. Felagund, who had known the grinding ice and the first light, the silence of the first stars and the despair before the coming of the sun. Felagund, who wove three songs of conflict into a harmony of difference, and drew them with every note from his harp into the song that they had not known could be theirs too.

I am a physicist

tove jansson tähtitorni

 

To me, science was always defined by Tove Jansson’s picture of the Observatory in the Lonely Mountains, from Comet in Moominland: scientists in an observatory high in the mountains, tiny creatures with huge telescopes, cast long shadows on the silent walls as they gaze at the stars, alone with the night.

And perhaps my reality isn’t so different in its way: the reality of the student sitting up late into the night, poring over timeless equations, and notes more timelessly human, typeset in LaTeX. Listening to In Flames’ Dialogue with the Stars, and holding my own dialogue with the stars.

We define for ourselves the meaning of truth, and find the answers in what we cannot know.

We play with numbers, and suddenly a world builds itself out of them. We create a language to express our ideas, and the language acquires life, and creates new ideas for us to express.

We listen for the underlying song of the universe, and experience the ecstatic loneliness of understanding time.

We are theoretical physicists.

(Read more about the #iamaphysicist day here!)

A defence of laziness

Worn, dappled afternoons, delicately brown around the edges. The exquisite twentieth-century binding of Hamiltonian afternoons.

It is on these afternoons that I feel closest to the gentle curving at the heart of the world of Platonic forms. On these afternoons that I feel part of the highest endeavour of man, one with the quest of the ages.

Laziness: the highest ideal of human existence. The art of insinuating oneself unobtrusively into the fabric of the universe. The pursuit of the elegant and the expedient. (At higher levels of intellectual endeavour, aren’t those two almost synonymous?) But let us distinguish between the implicit and the explicit. The explicit inclusion of the ideal in our theories would lead us to embrace as equivalent ideals the sustainable and the non-invasive.

It was laziness that led man to invent the wheel. The quest to avoid work leads man to his highest intellectual triumphs. No lazy man would choose to fight a war with his neighbour when he could have him over for non-strenuous conversation instead.

It’s laziness that leads electrons to travel every path that exists to see which takes the least work. Come to think of it, laziness is actually the governing principle of the universe.

My quest as a scientist is to balance a curious interest in disentangling by hand the threads of the universe with an equal interest in seeking the high, the pure, the Platonically convenient. I’ll let my thoughts wind their way into the complexities of infinite infinitesimals without the officious hindrance of effort. Of such are the songs of existence born.

Possibly I met you yesterday. In fact I’m inclined to think it of significant probability. Significant or non-negligible, I don’t mean important, just large. Hm, I suppose large things are important in their way, things you can see form part of the fabric of your thoughts. And that makes the dimensions of the universe uncurl in your thoughts a little bit more. Nice.

The gradual yielding of correlations to synonyms. Resonances of light and language.

Glorious smoothnesses on the surface of a specious theory. Time rolled the curving of time to us, and we caught it with our machinery. Hello, LIGO. Are you listening to the universe?

Oh, hello. Have you come to sing to me again? I like listening. Lazy listening to the song of your movements. The universe is a complaisant conspirator.

I haven’t quite made up my mind about Einstein. For a scientist, I consider him insufficiently removed from sanity. Then again, there’s no getting away from his inarguably Aeschylean genius.

Forms live forever. That’s a long time.

But I believe in positional objectivity. I like you from the left. Well, I’m sitting on the left. No, no, I hope you’re not offended!

You mean so much to me, I couldn’t possibly pay you a compliment that wasn’t semantically defined. That would be untrue to you and the universe. How can what’s semantically perfect be incomplete?

But of course I needn’t have worried! We both hear the song of the particles. Of course you understand.

Dance of the Quarks

She held herself up with the lift of her head, feeling in the line of her arabesque for one of the flaming Platonic lines of the universe.

Then she bent her head to the turn of her thigh, arm tracing down to the waiting smoothness of her stocking.

*

Lightly fall feet to the ground: perfection is the inevitable accident. And they whirl and draw with the light falling on the curve of arms and necks the snow.

*

Feet traced the scratched floor, swept over it like eddies of snow. They rustled together in an embracing, exclusive stillness, a glimmering dry charm.

There was nothing in the universe but the leaping lines of the music and the warmth in her still, pulsing arms. And the strange lights that clothed them, that they could not see.

*

She stood taut as a spring along the line of her pointed toe, spin lifted so she could glance sideways at a neck, her neck. She knew that if she moved, space would wake and send lines of snow spiralling along the glittering fields her arms pointed to life. And she would spin faster and faster into the snowstorm that her arms created, that drew her pirouette into its own. But she didn’t move: she stood thoughtfully wrapped in the shadow of her reflection, and waited for another’s explosion.

*

Between the surface of thin frosted lights and the top of the glittering momentary hallway that the music drew into being….

Fell the flakes to the floor, swirling to the bottom of the universe where high heads and cold arms rested.

*

A dancer’s a stir in a breathless field of tulle and thought. The field wills me to life. I give it its life.

Still I write my song….

An instinct for time’s taut cadences. A tight, caressing thunder. A vital and golden noisiness. A furious imagination. A voice from a younger universe, warm as art, eternal as life.

And a song is born.

They weave decadences of silence, and trace through them glittering strands of storm. The air holds the afterglow of flaming interwoven glances, of fingers on the pulse of time, of five musicians listening to each other.

Many are not there now that were before, but time has not reclaimed her gift. They still weave colours and hear the elder songs. Now it is Marco who draws from the night the shimmering thunder of stars unseen.

Tarja’s voice was heady and remote as sunrise on the mountains. Annette’s was brown as the sun on the edge of the woods. Floor’s is deep as starlight, clear as night.

They are still Nightwish.

Star Wars and the Legacy of the Legends

As a Star Wars fan, I loved the fact that The Force Awakens recalls the original Star Wars trilogy in so many ways, from the cinematography and art direction to the plot and dialogue. But George Lucas, who created the series, was disappointed because he saw the new film as re-treading old ground and playing to the fans.

But perhaps the many echoes of the earlier films aren’t just about paying homage or appealing to the original fans of the series. They could also be seen as a narrative device, facilitating interpretation of The Force Awakens.

.

The audience that pushed The Force Awakens to the top of the box office isn’t entirely the same audience that fell in love with the original films when they first came out. Some of us have been fans ever since the first film hit theatres; but some of us were born later and heard of them first from our parents, seeing them first through the eyes of our parents’ enthusiasm and finding our own reasons to love them as well.

A new Star Wars film would always be embedded in a different cultural and cinematic context. We live in a different world with different problems. Star Wars is no longer a new screen adventure: it is now a cinematic legend with a huge presence in popular culture.

And now a new director seeks to make a film that will make the legend live again.
.

Through the references to the original, the makers of the new film are actually acknowledging their distance from it. This is a film about growing up in the shadow of legends. It continues the narrative of the original films, but it also lets us into it, not just as a good work of art always does—by showing us characters we can relate to—but also through the positioning of its narrative. The echoes of past films do not constitute a secret joke between the director and the original audience, with the characters at a distance. The characters mirror us: they are aware of and rooted in their past while au fond separate from it. To Kylo, Rey and Finn as to us, the Force and the Jedi are legends of a different time they heard about growing up. Their different stories play out complex relationships with the past.

.

Far from contending ambitions and ideologies, a young person leads a lonely life of habit on a sandy planet. But this life is shattered when she finds a forsaken droid carrying an important message from the heart of the conflict. Though Rey’s old life is ended, it has fitted her, technically, intellectually and morally, for the new; and instead of living for the day, she is now an important part of the central conflict of history and legend.

Perhaps the textual and visual parallels between the stories of Rey and Luke are meant to highlight the sense of moving back, and the ineluctable past that shapes both their lives. Rey has a destiny written for her in the sand, a lightsabre that calls to her; she is attracted to it even as she is afraid to sever all links with the old life and let the currents of time bear her where they will. But as Maz Kanata tells her, the belonging she seeks is not behind her: it lies ahead, in being part of the ageless humanitarian quest. Stepping into her heritage of legend and destiny is actually about moving ahead, embracing her individuality, doing what she was meant to do and only she can do. Relinquishing control over her life in one sense will give her much greater control over her world in another. The past is both ineluctable and liberating.
.

To Kylo Ren, on the other hand, his heritage of legend is also his personal heritage. He is the son of legends, and they loom large on his mental horizon. His past has made him what he is, even as he struggles to free himself from it.

Kylo’s struggle is personal, against his genetic and psychological inheritance. He is actually crying to be freed from his inheritance of conflict: both from the relentless pull to the light and the unforgiving ambitions of the dark side, the twin aspects of his heritage from his family. As the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, this conflict is an essential part of him, but he believes that the solution lies in the dominance of one side over the other. His struggle to free himself from his Solo-Skywalker destiny leads to him re-treading, in heart-wrenching antiparallel, the paths of the Luke-Darth Vader struggle: from “You killed my father!” “No, I am your father!” we have moved to “You are my son!” “No, I killed your son!” The destiny that he struggles against is fulfilled in his very struggle against it.
.

Finn seeks to get away from the past and its wars, but he realises that there are higher claims on him: his affection for Rey, though grounded in the present, brings him to a realisation of the ideals that inspire her, the ideals that older generations have fought to pass down to them; and he gradually embraces the world of legend, declaring that he will ‘use the Force’ (even if that isn’t quite how the Force works) and using a lightsabre with considerable skill.
.

Poe Dameron is at home in the fight against the dark side from the very beginning, flying an X-wing fighter for the Resistance with courage and joyous élan. When he trusts Finn at the beginning and later welcomes him to the Resistance base, he is letting him be part of the conflict, making the past accessible.

.

The film explores how the past defines us in ways beyond our control, but sets us free in other ways to do what we are meant to do. And like its characters, the new series will probably move forward the narrative and conflict of the original films, but in its own way.

Volundarkvitha

(A retelling of the Lay of Volund, from the Elder Edda)

The leaves were falling when the swan-maids came to Mirkwood, where the sons of the king dwelt by the lake. There they rested in the silent splendour of the forest, laying their swan-plumes down beside them: Svanhvit, Olrun and Alvit. With the dawn came footsteps through the colour-fringed trees, and Alvit lifted her swan-neck and looked up.

Her eyes absorbed and distilled for him the colours of the forest, an infinite capacity for doubt and wonder. In her face was a warm, inclusive silence. And her glances blazed up like a flaming tree from the cool depths of the forest floor.

He sat beside her by the lake, and their silences were one.

***

He read time in the lake, in the deep silences of the woods, in the immortal cadences of a phrase. And he wrought with endless care every word of his eternal, pulsating universe. Something leaped into his heart at the sight of a perfect circlet of gold which his hands had wrought, at the glance that his words called from the swan-maid’s warm, timeless eyes.

But to her, time was the fire that leaped from the swords in the evening, the sky momently stained by victory’s ravaged fields, reshaping everything in the universe of a new question. Time was the chord that sprang from a thousand throats, gathering the hoarse freshness of many voices into the one reverberating note of golden evening.

***

For seven years the swan-maidens dwelt in the forest with the sons of the king, far from the crimson horns that bayed over empty lands. But in the eighth year the call came to them again, and they could not but heed it. In the ninth year they flew away on the echoes of the sunset, to see the brothers no more until their times met again.

At dawn came the brothers in from the chase, to find the swan-maids fled. East then went Egil, to seek his consort in the waiting dawn; Slagfid went west, to find his bride on the fringes of the sunset.

Time has claimed my bride and my brothers, as the dawn claims the morning star. Could my hand stay the fleeting echoes of the ending summer? I’ll shape the rings then for the bride of my memory, for man cannot pursue the sun.

From autumn’s dusk he lit his flame, bent over infinitesimal perfection. And as the leaves began to catch the fire of the light, he’d hang up another ring on the cool bast.

***

He came in from the storm, his beard frozen, his eyes deep with the leaping loneliness of the dusk. The dark was falling as he counted the rings, their light slipping through his fingers like flakes of snow. But one ring was not there. Someone had been there, gliding on swan-wings through the darkening northern sky, stealing through the snow on intent, slender feet….

The viol of his consciousness lulled him to sleep as he stared into the dying fire, seeing time and the fire of memory in the dark. The night enfolded him, and for once her touch was kind.

But when he awoke, he could move no more. Soldiers had come in the night to take him prisoner, for the gold that his hands had shaped.

His heart screamed the anguish of the night, but in his eyes was silence. They feared the silence as they feared the night, and the end of their unending pursuit of the sun. And so they took it all from him, the work of his hands, his last treasures of the fallen light.

Like the autumn storms he ravaged their lost, glittering court, fleeing the pain of memory in eternity. He cast over his bride the shields of oath and memory, and set his notes of gold into the song that would not fade.