Monday, August 30, 2010

Daniel, Isaac, and Neal


A very interesting point to consider in light of the ubiquitous "the world is getting steadily more awful" meme we often hear in religious discussion. (This attitude or presumption is even more influential in faiths with a strong millennialist streak, such as Mormonism.)

The author, depicted with (counterclockwise from upper left) Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Sophia of Hanover and William of Orange.

Aboard ship, our protagonist, Daniel, morbidly ponders the possibility of a wreck as he continues to record his memoirs of his university education with his friend Isaac Newton––specifically regarding the new (and more accurate) sundial they built.

From Quicksilver, Vol. 1 of The Baroque Cycle, by the brilliant and inimitable Neal Stephenson:

One cannot board a ship without imagining ship-wreck. Daniel envisions it as being like an opera, lasting several hours and proceeding through a series of Acts.

Act I: The hero rises to clear skies and smooth sailing. The sun is following a smooth and well-understood cœlestial curve, the sea is a plane, sailors are strumming guitars and carving objets d'art from walrus tusks, et cetera, while erudite passengers take the air and muse about grand philosophical themes.

Act II: A change in the weather is predicted based upon readings in the captain's barometer. Hours later it appears in the distance, a formation of clouds that is observed, sketched, and analyzed. Sailors cheerfully prepare for weather.

Act III: The storm hits. Changes are noted on the barometer, thermometer, clinometer, compass, and other instruments––c┼ôlestial bodies are, however, no longer visible––the sky is a boiling chaos torn unpredictably by bolts––the sea is rough, the ship heaves, the cargo remains tied safely down, but most passengers are too ill or worried to think. The sailors are all working without rest––some of them sacrifice chickens in hopes of appeasing their gods. The rigging glows with St. Elmo's Fire––this is attributed to supernatural forces.

Act IV: The masts snap and the rudder goes missing. There is panic. Lives are already being lost, but it is not known how many. Cannons and casks are careering randomly about, making it impossible to guess who'll be alive and who dead ten seconds from now. The compass, barometer, et cetera, are all destroyed and the records of their readings swept overboard––maps dissolve––sailors are helpless––those who are still alive and sentient can think of nothing to do but pray.

Act V: The ship is no more. Survivors cling to casks and planks, fighting off the less fortunate and leaving them to drown. Everyone has reverted to a feral state of terror and misery. Huge waves shove them around without any pattern, carnivorous fish use living persons as food. There is no relief in sight, or even imaginable.

––There might also be an Act VI in which everyone was dead, but it wouldn't make for good opera so Daniel omits it.

Men of his generation were born during Act V* and raised in Act IV. As students, they huddled in a small vulnerable bubble of Act III. The human race has, actually, been in Act V for most of history and has recently accomplished the miraculous feat of assembling splintered planks afloat on a stormy sea into a sailing-ship and then, having climbed onboard it, building instruments with which to measure the world, and then finding a kind of regularity in those measurements. When they were at Cambridge, Newton was surrounded by a personal nimbus of Act II and was well on his way to Act I.

But they had, perversely, been living among people who were peering into the wrong end of the telescope, or something, and who had convinced themselves that the opposite was true––that the world had once been a splendid, orderly place––that men had made a reasonably trouble-free move from the Garden of Eden to the Athens of Plato and Aristotle, stopping over in the Holy Land to encrypt the secrets of the Universe in the pages of the Bible, and that everything had been slowly, relentlessly falling apart ever since [emphasis mine]. Cambridge was run by a mixture of fogeys too old to be considered dangerous, and Puritans who had been packed into the place by Cromwell after he'd purged all the people he did consider dangerous. With a few exceptions such as Isaac Barrow, none of them would have had any use for Isaac's sundial, because it didn't look like an old sundial, and they'd prefer telling time wrong the Classical way to telling it right the newfangled way. The curves that Newton plotted on the wall were a methodical document of their wrongness––a manifesto like Luther's theses on the church-door.

*In England, the Civil War that brought Cromwell to power, and on the Continent, the Thirty Years' War.

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