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Yvonne Lammerich

Between Inner and 0uter Space, John D. Barrow, New York, OUP, 1999.

(John Barrow teaches theoretical physics and applied mathematics at Cambridge University.)

etc Montreal #53, March-May 2001.
[ 1,101 words ]


The wonderful thing about curiosity is that it inevitably scans beyond the boundaries of singular categories of knowledge. What it scans is always the edge, the possibilities in a new hypothesis or theory or experimental finding, in the process of offering us new propositions, themselves rehearsals of the eternal questions: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why are we here?

Each historical moment has its own curiosity, privileging different questions and permissions. Answers shift, sometimes dramatically, sometimes imperceptibly. Each carries a message, a snapshot, showing us how we will have pictured ourselves, how we will have rehearsed one or other of those infernal questions. What we will have believed.

John Barrow is curious, and his book, as Alice might have said, even curiouser. To appreciate what he is saying, here at the cusp of the third millennium, let's consider the case of the first millennium and the shift to its sequel. That first time around, belief was dominated by the year 1000, and the coming Apocalypse. Dominated, that is, by a belief in the end of both Time and Space, whose principle question, 'Why are we here?' was answerable only through theology and philosophy.

But the Apocalypse never came. With the gradual collapse of certainty about our cosmic Generality and God's proximity, location became imperative. 'Why are we here?' became 'Where are we?' However, as we know today, location includes the when with the where, Time with Space. Since the beginning of the second millennium, we have been preoccupied with both. The first clocks regulated monastic life no less than that of the industrial and Post Industrial Age. So the trajectories of Time allied with Space, whether pictorial space from Giotto to digital imaging or political space from Columbus to NASA, which completed the Cartesian grid of modern life's assumption of ordered Progress.

It is precisely here, where Progress becomes an assumption, that the curious become curious, and Barrow proposes one of those rehearsals that constitute a new perspective. Because one can't fail, at least now in retrospect, to notice an irony within the idea of 'modern' progress. Predicated on the concept of Utopia, Progress seems simply a secular version of anticipating the Apocalypse. And just as the turn of the first millennium shifted ground, so we at the turn of this millennium are confronted with a sense of the limits to progress, we have found ourselves shifting, formulating in the process a new question: 'What and Who' — are we? Barrow's response is deceptively simple, we are limited.

To make his case, Barrow asks us to see the physical universe from an 'anthropic' perspective, that is to say from our particular perspective as human beings. The recent story of science, let alone any other story, demonstrates our limitation of being and of knowledge. With humility, we must ask how are we different from our ancestors anticipating the end of Space and Time. Barrow's forty-two essays, written over a twenty year period, guide us along a trail in search of such common denominators. We encounter theories explaining life in the universe, music, complexity, quantum reality, aesthetics and much more whose leitmotiv is the anthropic or human principle in cosmology.

There is a difference between the reportage of curiosity and curiosity itself. When seminal ideas are converted into popularized 'truth' or folk beliefs, their outline blurs and generalizes into acceptance. To anyone for whom ideas in their formulating moment of curiosity represent the excitement of proximity, a vertigo of the imagination, Barrow is indispensable. Take his suggestion that the cosmic and quantum worlds are linked to the observer through the simple fact of observation: that consequently, there is no separation between the inanimate physical universe and the organic living world. As Barrow merges the concepts of 'universe' and 'life', think how artists merge 'art' and 'life'. Suddenly, the dismissal of this term as a relic of the failed avant-garde's transcendentalism seems premature, and the possibility of comprehending it as a limitation becomes plausible.

Universe and Life, Art and Life become related terms defining boundaries, defining what, or who we can be.

What Barrow is proposing holds important implications for contemporary aesthetics. If the conditions of life are linked to the physical structures that delimit the universe, all living things are precisely scripted within those delimitations. Consider the theory of complexity formerly dominated by chaos theory, and reconsidered here by Barrow as 'organized' complexity. The difference is striking. Where chaos theory suggests the theoretical impossibility of an a priori determinism, organized complexity speaks of the very opposite. And Barrow associates such an ordered complexity with artistic creativity. For anyone who has found contemporary post-structuralist arguments persuasive, Barrow's argument has a conservative tone, one that brings to mind Roland Barthes' distinction between 'work' and text. Whether or not we are persuaded by Barrow, his ability to argue from that perspective re-enlivens the debate and sharpens our sense of its urgency.

In the end, however, it is the implications in Barrow's argument for the age we are entering that catches our imagination. To move from chaos to organized complexity is to move from a baroque to a classical Weltanschauung. The reconfiguration of our model of relativity, now an assumption of our age, certainly offers new ground for a revival of theological or philosophical speculation, and a return to the questions that absorbed the first millennium. Barrow himself points out how this reconnects an extraordinary proximity between religion, science and philosophy. Are all of us relativists ready for this?

Barrow leaves us at the threshold between inner and outer space, between quantum's non space and our 'anthropic' space. It is the oscillation between them that defines so precisely what and who we are. For the curious, there is nothing more bracing than Alice's 'curiouser' and for anyone curious about consciousness at the turn of the millennium, there is nothing more illuminating than an argument founded on curiosity. If Barrow is convincing, we face a new round of rehearsals. If he is not, he has given us something to imagine, and in imagining it has left us with a dimension that our assumptions had disallowed. It is that dimension that makes Barrow's book so satisfying, so compelling.


etc Montreal #53, March-May 2001.


Text: © Yvonne Lammerich. All rights reserved.

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