Monday, March 25, 2013

Gravity's Rainbow; "Now everybody--"

Thomas Pynchon, author of "Gravity's Rainbow"
Thomas Pynchon, author of "Gravity's Rainbow"
In celebration of Gravity's Rainbow's 40th Anniversary (or is it birthday?) I reread the book over March. And I've got to say it is still among the most challenging books I've ever read. Though, without a doubt, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is hands down the most difficult.  I went through a brief overview of the novel, including links to some outstanding resources in an earlier posting, "Gravity's Rainbow" turns 40... and it's still amazing

Thomas Pynchon wants you to work. And, though at times the text seemed a bit dated to me -- a lot of the "hallucinations" rang of a Richard Crumb or Bugs Bunny montage to me -- there is something a lot deeper to this book. Which lacks a deep sense of humanity on one hand. But deals with science, the nature of reality, and the seeming conflict between the classical and quantum world views that it is still among a handful of books that, upon closing it, made me say "WOW!?"

It seems to me that the biggest philosophical point being made in Gravity's Rainbow is that there is a conflict between dualistic determinism (personified by the behavioral psychologist Pointsman) and Roger Mexico's nuanced probabilistic world view of the quantum mechanical & social sciences. In this view, things are not binary, but exist in fractions: shades of gray between 0 and 1.

A quantum jump in atomic physics
A quantum jump in atomic physics
To our rationalist  Pointsman, everything has "cause and effect," and everything is binary (0/1; true/ false; good dog/bad dog; success/ failure; life/ death). The view has proven to be very powerful, advancing the material power of Europe. The big secret to this world-view is the assumption that the world is mechanical. Like Newton or Descartes, the assumption of the rational positivists down through Spenser and Mill is that all we need to know to predict something is 1) to know its rules, and 2) to know the initial position of all of the moving parts. Once you know those two, the future of the system is exactly predictable.

But it neglects the random. and the action of chance. Which, especially after Einstein's discovery of the wave/ particle duality of a light beam, seems necessary to understand the world. Because this duality give rise to irregularities like Brownian Motion, which hinted at this duality to Einstein -- which led to his first Nobel Prize in physics.

And things get even weirder the deeper you get into the quantum world. For instance, the classical model of an atom is familiar to all of us: It is like a miniature solar system. The nucleus is in the center like the sun, and the electrons circle about the nucleus like miniature planets. And yet, experimental evidence has not only revealed that the orbitals are not circular or elliptical, but most often oddly shaped barbells. Weirder too is that the electron does not travel around the orbit. instead, it appears to flash in and out of existence at various locations around the atom. And those locations are random -- determined by the probability wave that we refer to as "the electron's orbital."

And , the quantum view of the world stands in direct conflict to the classical scientific view of Pointsman. Because of the uncertainty.

Early in the book, for instance, Roger Mexico finds that the strikes of the German V-1 bombs throughout London conform to a basic statistical/ mathematical construct called  Poisson Distribution. And yet, when Pointsman presses Mexico for the exact location of the next strike, he gets peeved when Mexico cannot provide that level of precision. Because the world that Roger inhabits is what Pynchon calls "The Zone," that area between 0 and 1, or life and death.

Discontinuous function in mathematics
A discontinuous function
 One would expect Sir Isaac Newton to be a classicist, similar to Pointsman in his general outlook: Sir Isaac should be binary, championing clear, structured Popperian experiments that either falsify or affirm a hypothesis.  But throughout the book, Pynchon makes constant reference to the ideas of calculus, which Newton was one of the first to discover. The core idea of the calculus is what Newton called a "fluxion," a super tiny change in a quantity that is not quite zero, but approaching it. In modern notation, that differnece is called (dx) when the change we are measuring is along teh horizontal axis. In the calculus, dx becomes smaller and smaller -- approaching, but never reaching, zero.

 So, in many respects, Newton contains and foreshadows the quantum world. Because the those dx's never quite equals zero in the calculus. So, they actually exist in Roger Mexico's Zone -- between 0 and 1.

... a Wehrmacht helmet through which he
has drilled a couple of hundred holes and
inserted nuts, bolts, springs and conductive
wands of many shapes....
 To me, Pynchon's math metaphors are not only intriguing, but I think are the key to understanding Gravity's Rainbow. For instance, I love the way he describes a "quantum jump", a discontinuous curve, using this calculus imagery. The narrator mentions -- through a character that wears a hat he designed to attract lightning strikes -- that a lightning bolt that shoots a person's mind to a whole new level. Which is a quantum jump, exactly analogous to what happens to an atom when it absorbs a photon, and enters an "excited" state.

 Pynchon goes on to describe both events in terms of the calculus. Because these quantum jumps are bizarre cases in mathematics. Because they are not smooth curves and have instantaneous "jumps" in their values. So the slope of the curve at the quantum jump is infinity...

  • Let's call the curve f(t), since the quantum jump happens in time (t)
  • The slope of f(t)=dy/dt
  • Since the change is instantaneous, ...dt=0 but ...dy<>0 [ed. Or dy is NOT equal to zero, but either greater than or less than zero]
  • But dy, or the energy state, jumps (of falls) by a set amount dy<>0
  • ... For simplicity, we can make dy=1. (Any other number would work).
  • ...This makes the slope at the quantum jump equal to 1/0.
  • Thus, dy/dt is undefined (or infinity) since it is at right angles to the time (or t) axis

  • And thus, Pynchon gleefully points out that the world is strange when you're dealing with discontinuities like you are in the quantum world. Pynchon has a lot of fun with these calculus metaphors. And the analogous statistical concepts, like probability. And how we often try to look into the mind of God, and see connections between cause and effect. Which are not there. Because, as Enzian points out, from our level, there is "no difference between the behavior of a god and the operations of pure chance."

    So we all may be guilty of the classical "gamblers fallacy," noting patterns where there are none. Think of the really "out-there" conspiracies that flow through Slothrop's brain. And there is a part of me that questions whether or not the seemingly omniscient narrator is, indeed, reliable. Because the narrator tends to twist and ball everything up, building connection upon connection through a barrage of metaphor that may be meaningless. 

     I am not certain that Pynchon ever resolves the Newtonian/ quantum split in Gravity's Rainbow. But that is the space Pynchon plays in. And why he builds up a structure (a preposterous plot around Slothrop -- especially when he's in the pig suit) only to knock it down with bizarre turns of event that shock you because they make little sense or are gross (Marvy being mistaken for Slothrop comes to mind). And by the end of the book, the plot is in tatters as things grow more and more preposterous. And we are treated to Byron the immortal light bulb. And the Krazy Komikazis sitcom. And Mexico retreating into a hallucination where he enters the pattern on Slothrop's Hawian shirt. All of which is essence take that structure, and destroys it by mocking it. 

    Build up, tear down. It happens all through the book. But gets crazier as we near the final impact of 00000. 

    And, at the end, we're sitting in a theater. Watching a musical (a structure) -- with the master of ceremonies prompting us to join in, saying "Now everybody" -- only to have rocket 00000 glide along, in it's parabolic perfection (well defined first and second derivatives), piloted by Gottfried whose dressed in Impolex G (preposterous deconstruction) who crashes into the the theater -- final annihilation... 

    True north. 
    The end.

    And yet, we are told that "the final dt never reaches zero." So Gottfreid  never dies. Instead, like Schrodinger's cat, he is left hanging in a eignestate. Between living and dead. In the Zone. 

    Which leads us to the central concern of the novel: death. Is it indeed true, like the opening quote points out, that we never die? Because teh universe tends to conserve complex structures, like a soul? Pynchon never answers those questions. The answer, too, lies in the Zone. Best of luck in the search, though. 

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