If you and I read the same book over the winter break—let’s say Emma Donoghue’s Room—without either of us having been instructed to do so, we might consider that a coincidence. But since the book has been at the top of the best-seller list and available at every checkout counter, at the airport bookshops, and heavily promoted on Amazon, it’s not that much of a coincidence. And since it’s been made into a major motion picture, again, the coincidence is less remarkable. In fact, the more popular or widespread a cultural artifact is, the less surprised we are to share it. Nobody has ever said, “I can’t believe you somehow discovered Game of Thrones! This is uncanny!”
But if the book is a little-known collection of cartoon art by a mostly forgotten artist from a century ago—say Krazy Kat and the Art of George Herriman—we’ll probably both be astounded and want to know how we came to the same place when so few others have arrived there.
Most likely, we’ll discover a similarity between us we weren’t aware of. Something else we share will explain our choice of material. Of such similarities, bonds are built.
My Chance Observation
On our first day of class, I suggested that if I were to fling myself out the window, nobody would look UP, wondering where I had disappeared to. We are, quite naturally, conditioned by years of experience (in my case decades of experience) to fully expect the bodies of our defenestrated professors to plummet DOWN or EARTHWARD. And we are fully confident that we can explain why they surrender to that coincidence: it’s because of gravity.
I used the example to demonstrate the certainty that we share what we call “common knowledge” about the workings of the world.
I further suggested that most of the time, we’re wrong. And that we’ll eventually be proven to have been so.
Imagine my surprise when I began to read Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong? and found that he begins his book by questioning what we think we know about gravity.
How big a coincidence is that?
Not so big actually. Once we consider the circumstances, the odds approach certainty that Klosterman and I would share such an observation. I’ve been reading about counterintuitivity and the unexpected consequences of actions and causes for years, ever since I began to develop this course for my Rowan composition students. And Chuck Klosterman has made a career for himself questioning the obvious. So the only surprise is that I didn’t read his observation until today.
I did so standing in my laundry room, drinking coffee, and waiting for my pants to dry so I could remove them from the dryer before they wrinkled. (I’ll tell you why I included this visual detail shortly, in a lecture about Cows and Chips.) In case you’re wondering, this technique was very successful; my pants are dry, flat, and creased, front-and-back.
If Klosterman wrote his book standing in his laundry room waiting for his pants to dry, THAT would be a coincidence.
The only reason we all accept the notion (not the certainty, but the notion) of gravity is that we share the planet at this time. That the coincidence affects 7 billion people makes it no less coincidental.
- Humans before us did not share our notion of gravity.
- Humans who follow us will not share our notion of gravity.
We billions are THE ONLY HUMANS who will understand gravity as we know it.
- And we are wrong, just as those who came before us were wrong.
- And those who come after us will be wrong.
- Until somebody gets it right?
- No, until the end of time.
And if we can question our notion of gravity, we can question our beliefs (including our ironclad certainties) about absolutely anything.
Excerpt from But What If We’re Wrong?
Like most people, I like to think of myself as a skeptical person. But I’m pretty much in the tank for gravity. It’s the force most recognized as perfunctorily central to everything we understand about everything else. If an otherwise well-executed argument contradicts the principles of gravity, the argument is inevitably altered to make sure that it does not. The fact that I’m not a physicist makes my adherence to gravity especially unyielding, since I don’t know anything about gravity that wasn’t told to me by someone else. My confidence in gravity is absolute, and I believe this will be true until the day I die (and if someone subsequently throws my dead body out of a window, I believe my corpse’s rate of acceleration will be 9.8 m/s squared).
And I’m probably wrong.
Maybe not completely, but partially. And maybe not today, but eventually.
“There is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five hundred years. In fact, that’s the one arena where I would think that most of our contemporary evidence is circumstantial, and that the way we think about gravity will be very different.” These are the words of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University who writes books with titles like Icarus at the Edge of Time. He’s the kind of physicist famous enough to guest star on . . . The Big Bang Theory.” For two hundred years, Isaac Newton had gravity down. There was almost no change in our thinking until 1907. And then from 1907 to 1915, Einstein radically changes our understanding of gravity: No longer is gravity just a force, but a warping of space and time.
And now we realize quantum mechanics must have an impact on how we describe gravity within very short distances. So there’s all the work that really starts to pick up in the 1980s, with all these new ideas about how gravity would work in the microscopic realm. And then string theory comes along, trying to understand how gravity behaves on a small scale, and that gives us a description—which we don’t know to be right or wrong—that equates to a quantum theory of gravity. Now, that requires extra dimensions of space. So the understanding of gravity starts to have radical implications for our understanding of reality. And now there are folks, inspired by these findings, who are trying to rethink gravity itself. They suspect gravity might not even be a fundamental force, but an emergent force. So I do think—and I think many would agree—that gravity is the least stable of our ideas, and the most ripe for a major shift.”
. . .
A post-gravity world is beyond my comprehension. But the concept of a post-gravity world helps me think about something else: It helps me understand the pre-gravity era. And I don’t mean the days before Newton published Principia in 1687, or even that period form the late 1500s when Galileo was (allegedly) dropping balls off the Leaning Town of Pisa and inadvertently inspiring the Indigo Girls. By the time those events occurred, the notion of gravity was already drifting through the scientific ether. Nobody had pinned it down, but the mathematical intelligentsia knew Earth was rotating around the sun in an elliptical orbit (and that something was making this happen). That was around for hundred years ago. I’m more fixated on how life was another four hundred years before that. Here was a period when the best understanding of why objects did not spontaneously float was some version of what Aristotle had argued more than a thousand years prior: He believed all objects craved their “natural place,” and that this place was the geocentric center of the universe, and that the geocentric center of the universe was Earth. In other words, Aristotle believed that a dropped rock fell to the earth because rocks belonged on earth and wanted to be there.
So let’s consider the magnitude of this shift: Aristotle—arguably the greatest philosopher who ever lives—writes the book Physics and defines his argument. His view exists unchallenged for almost two thousand years. Newton (history’s most meaningful mathematician, even to this day) eventually watches an apocryphal apple fall from an apocryphal tree and inverts the entire human understanding of why the world works as it does. Had this been explained to those people in the fourteenth century with no understanding of science—in other words, pretty much everyone else alive in the fourteenth century—Newton’s explanation would have seemed way, way crazier than what they currently believed: Instead of claiming that Earth’s existence defined reality and that there was something essentialist about why rocks acted like rocks, Newton was advocating an invisible, imperceptible force field that somehow anchored the moon in place.
We now know (“know”) that Newton’s concept was correct. Humankind had been collectively, objectively wrong for roughly twenty centuries. Which provokes three semi-related questions:
- If mankind could believe something false was objectively true for two thousand years, why do we reflexively assume that our current understanding of gravity which we’ve embraced for a mere three hundred fifty years—will somehow exist forever?
- Is it possible that this type of problem has simply been solved? What if Newton’s answer really is—more or less—the final answer, and the only one we will ever need? Because if that is true, it would mean we’re at the end of a process that has defined the experience of being alive. It would mean certain intellectual quests would no longer be necessary.
- Which statement is more reasonable to make: “I believe gravity exists” or “I’m 99.9 percent certain that gravity exists”? Certainly, the second statement is safer. But if we’re going to acknowledge even the slightest possibility of being wrong about gravity, we’re pretty much giving up on the possibility of being right about anything at all.
None of this means that we should look UP when our professor flings himself out the window. Most likely he will always plummet to the pavement during our lifetimes. But it should—I hope to god it does!—invite us to wonder whether we know for certain WHY he “falls,” if that is in fact what’s happening.
Your semester-long research project will question a treasured, almost unconscious belief, of which we’re so certain we don’t even wonder whether to wonder about it. Before reading “The Island of Stone Money,” had you given a thought to why we value those thin strips of linen imprinted with inscrutable symbols? What else are we taking for granted?
Reply below, please.