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Dark Matter and the Dirac Array

Shakespeare Emerges – 

I remember being enthralled in astronomy class the first time I heard about “dark matter.” This is the unknown mass out there providing the gravitational stability needed for luminous structures like spiral galaxies. Although thought to be many times larger than the visible matter in the universe, the jury is still out on what dark matter is composed of. Neutrinos must have mass, some people say, referring to the ghostly particles that burst from the guts of stars each time a particle of hydrogen gets cooked into a particle of helium. Others say the lit galactic arrays are surrounded by fields of Jupiter-sized planetary bodies. No, say others still, dark matter is composed of vacuum fluctuations, the sub-atomic particles that leap out of nothingness into existence, and then disappear again a nano-second later, cancelling themselves out. Whatever the reason, dark matter has always appealed to me as a correlate for the hidden emotional material that supports our distinctly eccentric, often unstable, and occasionally luminous personalities.

Do you know about the physicist Paul Dirac? If you’ve read accounts of how the quantum realm revealed its secrets to the gaze of science in the 1920s, you’ve encountered the Dirac allure. An odd stillness enters the room when other physicists describe how, in 1926, Dirac, then a doctoral student at Cambridge, “noticed” a crucial correspondence between the impossibly complicated equations of classical mechanics and the even more Byzantine and inscrutable equations of the new fangled quantum mechanics. The Dirac Equation he presented two years later made a major contribution to the quantum physics that allows your computer to process and display this text, and Dirac went on to win the Nobel Prize (along with Erwin Schrodinger) in 1933. Second only to Einstein in the esteem of his peers, Dirac seemed to embody with elegant purity the dispassionate restraint of the rational mind. And so it’s no wonder that Graham Farmelo, the author of the recent biography, The Strangest Man, opens the book with an episode late in Dirac’s life that shakes up this portrait of an arid genius devoid of emotional obscurations, and points toward the dark matter that supported, perhaps even informed, the brilliance of the Dirac array.

Farmelo begins with a story told by Kurt Hofer, a cell biologist and fellow faculty member at Florida State Univeristy in Tallahassee where Dirac, with great eccentricity, moved in 1970 to complete his career. Hofer had endeared himself to Dirac by helping the famous physicist solve the digestive problems that had troubled him his whole life. For some two years Hofer and his wife visited the Diracs almost weekly. During these encounters Dirac maintained the quasi-autistic reserve he was famous for. One night Hofer’s wife stayed home and Dirac brought Hofer into a back room where they sat in front of a fire and talked. Dirac corrected some minor error Hofer made while discussing his French ancestry and then began to speak about his own family background. The scene as described by Farmelo is uncanny, Dirac turning to face the open flames and, in a clear but quiet voice, telling Hofer “I never knew love or affection when I was a child.” Then, flowing out unabated came a long, molten indictment of Dirac’s sadistic father, who had cruelly abused Dirac and his older brother, who eventually committed suicide. As Dirac fell silent two hours later, the astonished Hofer excused himself and left. Discussing the encounter with his wife at home, Hofer decided he needed to reach out to Dirac and find out more. As it turned out, Farmelo reports, the subject never again came up – like Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, Dirac’s fireside outburst seems to have been a unique event.

How does the brilliance of Dirac’s scientific achievements relate to these deep emotional wounds? In complex, co-emergent ways, no doubt. The issue came to mind again when I picked up Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns, which is full of startling new insights about Emily Dickinson and her family. Sure enough, dark matter has been discovered in the shadows of Homestead House, which, it turns out, were lurid and alive with sweaty eros. The typical picture of Dickinson, primly composing her poems by the window of a sparsely furnished room, is suddenly complicated by the addition of a Vivid Video soundscape traveling up through the floorboards. Her brother Austin, often used the parlor of Homestead to entertain the very ardent, and very married Mabel Loomis Todd in adulterous liasons, bringing a storm of shame upon the family.

No doubt Dickinson’s reaction to her brother’s scandalous entanglement was complex and contradictory, but I suspect the urgency of the situation only energized her art, as life does when it’s most intense and unsettling. Although we can’t listen to Dickinson directly the way Hofer listened to Dirac, her poems are all about their own dark matter. Little machines constructed to cut through the murk of disconnected mental life, Dickinson’s poems find their way up toward open sky of direct experience. To read the work is to be taken along on this ride and left up there, closer to the light.

Part of what we long for in art is to be “returned to life more violently,” in Francis Bacon’s resonant phrase. And one function of cultural institutions is to impede this process, surrounding active elements with the microphages of banality. Brilliance in any field is celebrated as a thing apart, the artist made iconic in a way that renders them inactive in our lives as agents of change. Dark matter is precisely where we share ground with figures like Dickenson, and where our vital, liberative connection to their work can form.

Perhaps a fear of our own transformative capacity explains why we love to hang the sign of tepid mediocrity over the most generative artists. Compare, for example, the iconic portrait of Shakespeare depicted as a hapless, balding bureaucrat, with the formidably self-possessed and sharp-eyed Renaissance dandy in the portrait discovered recently in Ireland. Whether or not this is a true likeness of Shakespeare will be debated energetically for a good long time, but it is certainly as true to life as the familiar engraving. For me, the new portrait underscores how potent Shakespeare’s work remains. And so the question arises: in what ways do we connect with the dark matter that supported his brilliant galaxy of a mind, the light of which continues to illuminate human cultures around the globe?

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, Shakespeare documented the affective anxiety disorder of the Protestant world as it began to form, and for this reason continues to be the reigning sage of the modern era. Want to understand the nature of life in Eastern Europe? Read Jan Kott’s classic Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Want to understand what happened on Wall Street in 2008? Imagine a whole industry run by Iagos, Edmonds and Richard the Thirds and it all starts to make a bit more sense. Who is Ayn Rand but the Lady Macbeth of modern Political thought, whispering her siren song into the ear of every boardroom cutthroat. Everywhere we look we are troubled by what a cultural shrink might call our “Iago introject,” our inability to love our own nature, as expressed via the famous “externalities” of the Capitalist economy. Our glittering achievements are supported by the dark matter of all their hidden costs – entire species dwindling to extinction, the oceans dying – as we desperately advertise our happiness to ourselves, galloping toward calamity.

The only way forward for us is perhaps encoded in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, which can be considered a poem to the emergent unity of the world. The potential to reshape dark material resides in Prospero’s recognition that we ourselves are dreamlike, contingent beings, intricately inter-connected. The anger and avarice we direct toward the earth in a dark river of annhiliatory energy can be brought in and made into fuel for transformation. Turning to reach down through our own shadow material we may locate an emergent force that is both real and unreal at the same time, and wake up to find that the deepest ecstasy embeds the basic material of the world.


  1. Harvey Perr says:

    Again, a very fresh approach to what’s going on right now. It’s hard not to agree given the evidence your erudition reveals, but, not familiar with all your sources, they are ideas I never would have come up with all by myself. Maybe others, but not these. And the image of Ayn Rand as Lady Macbeth is tellingly brilliant.

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