Cosmic Viewpoint

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Stories / pk by Age / Art Publisher /
@ K. 2005 11 15

Isaac Asimov & the Crab Nebula

1973, bk is in junior high school, I’m trying to guide him on his homework. bk, as always, is resisting. Some resistance is natural, some resistance is desirable, but kidnapped at five, bk has been trained, before he could see it, to resist specifically his father: in all matters academic. pk, the deschooler, you see, by an utterly clear-seeming false-logic, was the anti-academic.

bk’s assignment had something to do with the moon: something astronomical. I, by utter coincidence, had the big, fat, freshly reissued Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Science in my hand upon my arrival for my visit with my son. I didn’t trust bk’s school’s training in research. I was trying to teach bk, early, a little something about looking stuff up independently of your handlers. No one will ever find their way out of the maze if they follow the traffic lights, the blinking signs. We’ll die in the terrarium, never finding the real forest.

Isaac Asimov
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bk of course absolutely wouldn’t listen. I pushed a little harder. I fetched the Asimov from the entrance way, shoved it toward his nose, flipped toward the astronomy section. The book fell naturally open at the section of illustrations. And there was a pic of the Crab Nebula. Resisting with all his might, bk nevertheless saw it, and bolted. We were in Hilary’s mother’s living room. He raced for the bedroom Hilary had colonized for him, came back staggering under a stack of books. Flipped through some, and there it was. bk defiantly showed me an illustration of: the Crab Nebula.

See? I had nothing to show him. His school had already provided him with anything I could show him: entirely missing the point I wasn’t allowed to present: he made no effort to show me that he had found those books on his own. I still bet that every one of them was from the Friends Library. If you do all your research in the cloister, and never venture into the field, your work, for eternity, will remain cloistered. If the brand new Asimov was in the Friends library, fine, why then use it; but also find some other reference, buy a telescope and look for yourself.

bk wouldn’t touch the Asimov, but I picked up the book in which he’d shown me that he already had a picture of the Crab Nebula. The printing was very poor, the focus poor. Both illustrations were gray-scale, no color; but bk’s Crab Nebula was in a larger format. That in itself made it a pleasure to hold. Wow, the stars are so fractal (this, a decade before the first tremors of chaos theory): the more so if you resist seeing the traditional blinking-light-lit patterns: Ursa Major, Orion … But this was the Crab Nebula, never seen in any detail until recently: and with no long history of constellation-associated stories.

Crab Nebula
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But something was wrong. I put both books as close to side by side as possible: the one too fat, the other too tall, for comfort. I rotated the pictures, failing utterly to get them to line up.

Now: we live in a culture that has long seen the universe as in place and at rest: as though it were anchored on a table in God’s lab. Science has been dragging us, kicking and bawling, into a universe with no center, no up, no down: no absolute location, no absolute reference. The Renaissance had a heavy foundation, the bottom was the bottom; we’re wafting about in a cosmic breeze: from nowhere.

Ah, ha! I said.

I bet your stupid library’s stupid book printed the negative upside down.

bk was starting to show interest. In a second or two he’d caught up to what I was seeing. It wasn’t that one photo had been taken in summer, the other in winter; it wasn’t that one photo had been taken from Norway, the other from California; it wasn’t that one photo had been taken before midnight, the other after; it wasn’t that one photo had been taken in the 1960s, the other in the 1970s, the stars having of course drifted … One photo was inside-out from the other. It was a ghost, a reflection.

You must understand: bk is as smart as anybody, as smart as me, maybe smarter than me, in some things. Maybe not as smart as Newton, or Shakespeare, or Mandelbrot, but way-smarter than anybody likely to be his teacher: at Friends, at Haverford … How can we tell which side is right side out and which inside out? he wondered.

Well, an equipped and budgeted scientist should have no problem: you get your own telescope, you take your own photo, you pay careful attention, you document your steps … then you compare both photos to your independent view … But what I said was, Trust the Asimov, mistrust the cheap print job.

See? Any of us will bail out on occasion in favor of authority. I was characterizing Asimov’s publishing as more reliable than that of the other book I’d never before encountered. Like the well-dressed guy has more probity than the beggar. Of course I know better. But the appeal to authority is so much easier than actual original research.

Einstein didn’t trust the experts. Freud didn’t trust the experts. I don’t trust the experts. Neither do I have my own telescope, my own lab … a budget for flying to unpolluted areas, the energy to try … I was already broken into pieces for offering a cheap unregulated internet in 1970. Not even Einstein can have questioned every logarithmic table put before him.

“Ah, I know,” I said, standing up. “We’ll ask Asimov.”

I strode to the dining room where the nearest phone sat, a Manhattan book beside it. (The dining room was also where Hilary had set up her permanent get-away-and-get-bk-away-from-pk hidy-hole sleeping area.) bk was alarmed. “What are you doing?” He started after me, he stopped, he turned to hide behind the coach. His father, once again, was about to embarrass everybody with his loudmouth lack of propriety.

Understand, I knew that Asimov lived in Manhattan. I didn’t know that he would have a listed number, but I didn’t know that he wouldn’t. A- s- i- … And there he was: listed. I dialed the number: big heavy black phone, no keypads then, not at Etta’s place.

Asimov answered on the first ring. I didn’t introduce myself. I didn’t tell him how his Pebble in the Sky was the first hardcover novel I’d ever bought for myself, the first self-purchased hardback I’d ever read. I didn’t tell him that I’d known his name as a favorite author longer than I’d known Shakespeare (in that connection). I just said that I had his new Guide open to the Crab Nebula, and that the photo was out of phase with my son’s library book picture of the same nebula. Etc. Etc.

Isaac Asimov told me that had control over his words; layout, illustrations, captions, and so forth, in contrast, he had no contract for, no legal recourse over. All that work was done by grad students, by apprentices … people with no accountability, their head up their ass (my words, not his). “If a book is wrong, it’s probably mine,” he said.

bk was slowly emerging above the couch. He approached half-way toward the dining room and its phone. His eyes were wide. Dad was getting away with it: at least this time.

But Asimov wasn’t content to dismiss the integrity of his publishers and do no more. I wish I could quote what followed. He said he was reaching for his Guide, found the Crab Nebula. Now he was reaching for … And he named a series of very authoritative-sounding astronomy references. The first such named proved to have the nebula inside out from his own book. Ah, but the second agreed with his. The third contradicted it. The fourth agreed …

“But, you know,” he said, “it doesn’t really make any difference …”
My mind was racing. “Because the Crab Nebula would look like that from x million light years on its other ‘side’,” I inserted.
“Yes,” he agreed, not throwing my interruption out of court, “It would look something like that from somewhere, somewhen.”

(Again, of course, paraphrase: damn close though, I assure you: except for the typical-pk “somewhen.”

Asimov not only didn’t seem to mind having been phoned by a stranger, he stayed on the phone, told jokes: some really good ones.

In fact I half-remember one of them:

Mascagni was one of those artists lucky enough to have his work both known and popular while he was young enough to enjoy the recognition. (As was Asimov!) (As pk has not been.)
Mascagni’s living on the upper floor of a corner building. An organ grinder is on the street below, his monkey begging. What’s he grinding from the organ? Cavalleria Rusticana.
Mascagni leans out the window. “Wrong tempo! Faster. Grind faster.”
The next day the guy is back. Mascagni leans out the window. “Wrong tempo! Now you’re too fast. Grind a bit slower.”
Mascagni can’t stand it. He comes down to the street, takes the organ grinder, cranks the handle. “See? Like that.”
The next day the guy is back. There’s the organ, there’s the monkey. And on his chest the guy is wearing a sign:
Student of Mascagni!

The following has to be rewoven:

Hilary always sent bk to expensive private schools, typically with a quasi religious cast (but in which secular values, not fundamentalism, were rampant): The Cathedral School, Friends … bk, once he got the majority say (by paying for college himself), continued in the same vein, ignoring Columbia’s invitation and attending Haverford: a college with again Quaker ancestry. (Columbia was founded in the Church of England, but that wallpaper is so familiar as to be invisible.)

It is essential here to understand that pk was never allowed any say in the matter: the society will always back the more conventional parent over the revolutionary parent, the propertied parent over the anti-property parent. I was convinced then and remain convinced now that the keystone reason that Hilary kidnapped bk when he was five, was so she wouldn’t have to discuss his schooling with me: seize possession, lock yourself in your mother’s stronghold, and there can be no argument. Face to face, Hilary never won an argument with me (few have), assumed (wrongly) that there would be an argument (I was, after all, the deschooler), and took the road the kleptocracy theoretically forbade, but actually embraced: peremptory parenthood. The judge will always kowtow to whoever has more money: and I had none (wanted only a little bit more than none).

Stories by Age by Theme by Others

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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