Of black holes and dripping apple trees: Physics and poetry meet to discuss the bending of time and space

Black hole. Image from NASA.

Recently I watched a documentary explaining black holes–that is, explaining what we know, or suspect, about black holes. Astrophysicists tell us that black holes form when gigantic stars die and collapse. Gravity pulls the stars’ matter into an incredibly dense entity, as dense as the earth would be if all its mass and gravity were condensed into the size of a golf ball. A black hole’s gravity is so powerful that even light–which we don’t usually think of as substance that can “fall”–is pulled into it. Even time itself stops inside a black hole.

So much about black holes seems paradoxical, at least when we try to apply our everyday-servicable Newtonian physics. Things fall into a “hole” because that “hole” is so . . . dense? And what about the “things” that fall?  Light? Time, for crying out loud? We’ve come a long way from the fruit falling from the apple tree onto Newton’s head. Some physicists even believe that black holes are wormholes, portals into other dimensions.

I don’t really understand it, to be frank. I mean, I understand the concepts, but something still seems missing. The knowledge I have doesn’t seem real to me. What is missing, I think, is bodily experience: in my body’s occupation of space-time, I have never experienced light and time as entities that can be affected by gravity. I keep wanting to say, “I understand it, but I can’t wrap my mind around it.” I want to use language that will (metaphorically) capture the physical element missing from my knowledge.

Perhaps it is ironic that figurative language, which scientists have banished from scholarly publications in the name of precision, comes closest to expressing my response to this scientific knowledge. Figurative language, poetry, larger-than-life storytelling–these forms help us imagine our bodies into situations they have never been in before. I would even go so far as to claim that poetry and fiction affect us physically in a way that precise scientific writing does not. And because of this capacity to engender body-knowledge, poetry and fiction stretch our conceptions of time and space.

As an illustration, consider the amazingly tangible, physical effects of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence,” a poem that bends time and space as the speaker falls through a kind of black hole. Millay writes about a journey through infinity, through the souls of all humans, to death and rebirth. The poem begins with an ordinary view of “three long mountains and a wood,” but soon, the world shrinks, and the trees are only an armlength away, and then the sky gets so close that the speaker can touch it. Finally even time and space collapse on her. The speaker has fallen into a black hole.

I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity

Came down and settled over me;

Forced back my scream into my chest,

Bent back my arm upon my breast,

And, pressing of the Undefined

The definition on my mind,

Held up before my eyes a glass

Through which my shrinking sight did pass

Until it seemed I must behold

Immensity made manifold;

….

And brought unmuffled to my ears

The gossiping of friendly spheres,

The creaking of the tented sky,

The ticking of Eternity.

Reading the poem, we can feel the stifling press of infinity, hear the movement of the planets ticking like a wall clock in the night.

As time and space have collapsed, so too have the boundaries between the speaker and every other human. The speaker begins to feel all the hurt and pain felt by everyone in the world:

No hurt I did not feel, no death

That was not mine; mine each last breath

That, crying, met an answering cry

From the compassion that was I.

All suffering mine, and mine its rod;

Mine, pity like the pity of God.

Eventually, the weight is too much to bear, and the speaker begs to die. But after a rest in the cool earth, the speaker remembers the simple beauty of life in one place in the universe, with only the perceptions her senses can afford her there. She longs for simple, singular sensations:

I would I were alive again

To kiss the fingers of the rain,

To drink into my eyes the shine

Of every slanting silver line,

To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze

From drenched and dripping apple-trees.

If one of those dripping apples fell down to the speaker, it would fall with ordinary earth-sized gravity. With an abundance of physical images, the speaker comes home.

But the poem does not glorify manageable smallness at the expense of that grand and terrifying multiplicity of perspectives the speaker has experienced. After her rebirth, the speaker can now see immensity in simple earthly things:

God, I can push the grass apart

And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The journey has changed her, stretched her perceptual apparatus.

Like Aesop of old, Millay gives us a moral at the end of her story. Unsurprisingly, it’s about relativity, and how bigness of soul leads to bigness of perception:

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky, –

No higher than the soul is high.

This poem swells my heart. You can read the whole thing here if you want to see it, and I’ve read it for you, if you’d like to hear it:

 

If you’d like to see a bit of that documentary about black holes, here’s a clip:

-r

One thought on “Of black holes and dripping apple trees: Physics and poetry meet to discuss the bending of time and space

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