The Ultraviolet Catastrophe by Alice Major
I fell in love with that phrase as soon as i read it: “the ultraviolet catastrophe.” All those repeated t and tr sounds and the rhythm and, of course, the connotations of the words themselves. For years, I’ve been trying to find a poem to go with it. About a thunderstorm? A rock concert? Love?
It would have to be a poem about an event that threatens but never happens—the lightning doesn’t strike, the stranger across a crowded room turns out to be your gynecologist. The ultraviolet catastrophe was, for physicists of the nineteenth century, something that, surprisingly, did not occur. It became a kind of test case, a small pinhole in their picture of the world that, when looked through, revealed a completely new understanding.
The ultraviolet catastrophe that did not happen concerned some very ordinary behaviour in the world, as ordinary as how a poker glows in the fire. At the end of the 19th century, the scientific picture of the world included two different kinds of existence: things that were very small particles, and fields that moved energy in continuous waves. But the deep mathematics of this picture didn’t quite work out. They predicted that, as you applied more and more energy to the particles, this energy should radiate away at continuously higher wavelengths. The radiation from an increasingly heated object would climb through the colour scale from low-energy red wavelengths to the high-frequency violet end of the spectrum and beyond, to the invisible energies of ultraviolet light. But however many pokers sat in fireplaces all over Europe, they never turned violet as you heated them to higher and higher temperatures. They maintained the same orange or white glow.
This was a clue that light should be thought of, not only as a continuous electromagnetic field, but also as being made up of particles. Einstein made use of a piece of mathematical ‘trickery’ developed by Max Planck to explain light as small lumps of energy—photons— defined by their frequency. An orange photon stays orange—the poker sends out more of them as it gets hotter, but the increased heat energy doesn’t alter their frequency. Different substances emit photons with different wavelengths; the characteristic yellow-white light of the sun is characteristic of its particular composition. Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect elegantly explained a nice little puzzle, earned him his Nobel prize for physics, and opened the first window into the counter-intuitive world of quantum physics.
Violet is that shade at the extreme inner edge of the rainbow that seems more like the rainbow’s shadow than a colour. It is made of photons with wavelengths around 380 to 450 nanometres, the shortest wavelengths our eyes can see and the first step in the huge range of ultraviolet radiation that lies beyond our ordinary sight.
But, because my father was a house painter, I thought of violet not as an edge colour but as an inside, ‘secondary’ one. He taught me the colour wheel when I was little, and how certain colours—red, blue and yellow—were ‘primary,’ the sources for other colours. Violet (or purple) wasn’t the extreme opposite of red at the far edge of the rainbow; it was its close neighbour on the colour wheel. I mixed little tablets of scarlet lake and ultramarine in my paint-box together to get purple, and watched the water glass where I dipped my brush turn the dull, tertiary colours—greenish brown, puce mud.
I found it confusing in high school when I learned that mixing light wasn’t the same as mixing pigment. Suddenly yellow became a secondary colour, not a primary. Disks of red and green light burst into yellow where they overlapped. And when you added a third overlapping disc of blue, you got white light instead of the muddy almost-black of my water jar. It took me a long time to understand that the paints and pigments my father stirred together made their different shades by subtracting wavelengths from the white light that bounced off a painted surface; eventually mixing enough colours would subtract all the wavelengths and leave you with black. Conversely, mixing together the light shining through different-coloured filters added their wavelengths together, returned the spectrum to white.
What was a primary colour or a secondary one? What was a pure colour or a mixture? What was on the edge of the rainbow or inside the colour wheel? Colour was far less simple than my paint box had made it seem.
The universe doesn’t give us edges any more than the colour wheel does. As the Greek philosopher Archytas pointed out more than two thousand years ago, there couldn’t be a boundary: “If I am at the extremity of the heaven of the fixed stars, can I stretch out my hand or my staff?” He realized that you could never poke a staff through an edge of the universe. There would have to be something beyond it. The mathematics of contemporary physics confirms his intuition: difficult as an infinite universe is to imagine, it is still more difficult to imagine something outside its edge.
Nevertheless, the universe does give us extremes. A “singularity” occurs when, if you concentrate enough mass in a small enough space, the ordinary relations of matter and energy break down and simplify. The force of gravity always adds up—it is weak compared to the other forces, but it doesn’t cancel itself out as electromagnetic particles do, or fade away over very short distances as the strong force does. Eventually it pulls the matter closer and closer into an infinitely small space, a point where gravity itself becomes infinite.
Such ‘black holes’ are rather ordinary features of our universe, the end of a normal life cycle for larger stars. There seems to be one at the centre of every galaxy, including our own, pulling matter into its invisible fist. These are the end points of the universe, but they are scattered throughout its interior.
A black hole is a simple object. It can be defined by three parameters—how big it is, what its electric charge is, and its rotation. All the varied characteristics of the matter that poured into it disappear; the segregation of quarks and electrons, protons and photons that happened in the early days of the universe are reversed, smoothed out. Its gravitational force is so enormous that it even traps light; you can’t see a black hole if you are beyond a radius known as its event horizon. All you can witness is a faint fizz of radiation around it and the tendency for its invisible mass to tug and distort matter and energy in its vicinity. At its centre, the mutable, multi-hued world is reduced to colourless, unchanging force.
What are the edges of tragedy? Where does catastrophe begin and end?
“The comic is often paired with the tragic, but the two concepts are asymmetrical and different in kind,” writes Iris Murdoch in her perceptive analysis. We think of the two as extremes of the rainbow spectrum, deep violet mourning opposed to the jubilant red of the clown’s nose. But of course, as philosophers and clowns have known throughout history, gladness can lie achingly close to pain on the colour wheel of emotion.
“Tragedy belongs only to art, where it occupies a very small area,” writes Murdoch. We’ve been trying to define tragedy’s essential characteristics for generations. It’s big, say some; it needs kings and princes. It’s about ‘hubris’, a fatal flaw in the main character, say others. It should be banished, said Plato in semi-mock sincerity, since it charms us into identifying with bad and extreme characters.
Murdoch questions whether the attempt at isolating the particular colour of tragedy is even a particularly useful effort. “Is there not something wilful in the attempt to define tragedy, making it out to be something interesting and ideal? Why not treat the tragic plays as multifarious works, full of aspects and ideas and multifarious stuff?” she asks. The concept of tragedy “indicates some kind of end-point, a remarkable break in the continuum of art,” says Murdoch, pointing out how few works compose this singular genre: some plays from the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Lear, a handful of others.
What kind of artistic misery counts as ‘tragic’ rather than as pathetic or sad? And why on earth would we want to put this kind of pain into art and feel that it provides us with release, with the emotion we call “catharsis”?
Tragedy involves a cluster of features. There’s death of course. “That someone must die in a tragedy is not a mere convention, like that which decrees deaths in detective stories,” writes Murdoch. There’s a quality of undeservedness, unfairness, of innocence in collision with evil. There’s also a kind of compressive inevitability, a train wreck happening that can’t be stopped. Antigone cannot resolve the conflicting duties that will lead to her death. There is a reduction in the number of dimensions of life, with everything sucked into the crushing gravity of a black hole, down to one or two defining emotions. There is an unrelieved quality—any consolation at the end is feeble and second-hand.
But, unlike Iris Murdoch, I don’t think traged belongs only to art. It is a central emotion; it wells from the way that human beings experience grief.
The brain circuits underlying adult grief are based on those of an infant experiencing separation anxiety. This set of emotions becomes available to babies from the age of about six months; by this time they will likely have developed a bond with a mother/caregiver that is unique and close to irreplaceable. In all mammals, separation results in a well-identified series of behaviours that begins with an initial period of distress and repetitive searching when infants are actively angry and hostile towards the mother for leaving and at anyone else trying to substitute for her. In this immediate phase of searching, small monkeys experience elevated heart rates, increased body temperatures, and sleep disturbances. This first flush of protest is succeeded by an intense phase of grief, in which body temperature and heart rates drop; little monkeys will take on the curled-up body positions and sad facial expressions that humans do. Hormone levels change.
After these initial reactions, comes the longer phase of mourning and adjustment. “Grieving” we call it, this long period of lowered mood, disturbed sleep, and cognitive circling around a dark centre. This is what our self-help books and psychiatric interventions focus on, how to get us through/over/around this period. But this period is not what tragedy evokes. Instead, it’s about our initial desperate capacity for distress, a phase of such intensity that we are afraid our capacity for pain could kill us too.
We carry the infant’s fear of abandonment forward into the adult understanding of death—a knowledge that grows only slowly throughout childhood. Adults can fear death in advance, come to understand its extreme finality. And this is the emotion that lies at the heart of tragic literature. Tragedy is not about kings and princes per se; while they are often the subject of the classic dramas, royalty is only a metaphor for the importance of the people we will lose.
The classic tragedies involve a combination of innocence—someone is hurt who doesn’t have to be and didn’t deserve it—and inevitability. We cannot help dying, we cannot help being left. If someone has actively caused that separation—even the missing parent—he or she is a suitable object for hostility. Wilful evil has a role in tragedy, but not a more central one than it plays in fairy tales. It’s a plot device as much as anything, something to get the pain going. “Hubris” or flaws that trip a character up are also as characteristic of comedy as of tragedy. What’s different is the context of unrelieved pain and the question of whether it can be survived. The experience of catharsis is not so much the purging of emotions like the lancing of some kind of boil, but the reassurance that we do survive this singularity, this near approach to almost infinite pain. We may be left with the ashen world of depression, kneeling on a stage with the body of someone we love in our arms, but we have gone to that limit and lived.
Memento mori and carpe diem are two of the great themes of poetry, flip sides of the same coin. Remember death and seize the day. They are the frame we put around experience, the knowledge of the vibrant spectral band of visible light and the darkness that edges it in either direction. All poets come to elegy at last. However, elegy is not tragedy, not written from the centre of catastrophe. That’s a place art can seldom get to. Elegy comes from the complex inside of the colour wheel where what was primary, at the far edge of our capacity to feel, becomes secondary, a mixture.
I was sitting at the far end of an amalgamation—two long tables shoved together for a dinner to wrap up a symposium on the arts and sciences. One of the symposia guests was Alan Lightman, the physicist-turned-novelist, who had given an inspirational talk to open the conference the day before. A cluster of people from the University of Alberta’s physics department surrounded him on both sides of the table, and I felt I was watching a lighted stage filled with larger-than-life characters. One of the distinguished older physicists, whose name slid from my Teflon brain as soon as I was handed it in the introductions, had a big, energetic beard like a reverse whitecap curling forward from a wave. Largely, he ordered the appetizer and the desert, and the table’s third bottle of wine, then settled down to reminisce about the days when he had been working with Lightman, down the hall from Richard Feynman. They told the story of Feynman drawing equations on a board in one of their offices to demonstrate the evaporation of a static black hole. This was before Stephen Hawking picked up the idea and elaborated it to include rotating black holes, a discovery that made Hawking’s reputation. But Richard Feynman had merely dusted chalk from his fingertips and walked away from his equations.
It was like listening to legends of the gods. I was awe-struck at being taken to within one or two degrees of separation from Hawking and Feynman. And yet it made me realize how ordinary and human it all is. The world of international theoretical physics isn’t much bigger than, say, the world of North American poets. Its members can know each other to within one or two degrees of separation. Their work is a constant dialogue of influence and disagreement. They create their heroes in a process that is partly the luck of history’s narrative and partly based on fact—Mount Everest really is a little higher than all the other mountains around it, even if it was created through the same processes and couldn’t exist without them.
Yet Stephen Hawking does seem extreme, one of the most recognizable physicists of our time or any other. We know him not just for his ideas but for his story—the image of his wasted face and body, the sound of his synthesized voice seem to push us to the edge of human capabilities. How can a body be capable of so little and yet a mind be capable of so much? Humans are fascinated by such extremes. This is the material for our stories, the stuff of our legends. We don’t really find the ordinary terribly exciting. We seem to find that such singularities illuminate the human condition. The outliers at the far ends of the Bell curve are diagnostic in a way that the bulk clustered under the centre, the standard deviations, are not. They illuminate our understanding of the more ordinary.
Two short months before that dinner with the physicists, I watched my father die. He had become ill so suddenly, a sudden flood of septicemia into his bloodstream from a relatively routine infection. No-one else could get here in time. It was just the two of us in a tired room in a dementia ward. The hot dawn sky had turned a strange colour—a roasted bronze with a copper haze. I wonder how he would have mixed that exact shade, my father who could match any colour for the most demanding customer.
Thirty-six hours before, I had made a regular visit. He had been a bit more wobbly, more uncoordinated than usual, but I wasn’t unduly worried. He had one of the gastrointestinal viruses that went round and round the ward like a DNA chain. I had played a CD for him of Robert Burns’ songs—ending with that great poem to human equality, Is there for honest poverty. “For a’ that, and a’ that, a man’s a man, for a’ that.” As I turned the music off and bent over him to say goodbye, he murmured, “Bring me a pen. Tomorrow.”
I came back the next day to find him lying as if asleep, breathing like a man in a long race, fluid melting out of his cells. Suddenly, as though a sentence had been completed in our heads, we recognized that he was very, very ill. The long summer evening and its short night wore away; the sun rose at five in the morning as I sat beside him. An hour or two later, I came back in the room after waiting outside while the nurses changed his sweat-drenched linen yet again. His breathing was still rapid but less noisy. His face had changed. I took his hand and talked. A nurse came in and said, “Oh, my, he’s going,” and left us again. I kept talking. I told him how much he had been loved. I told him the stories of poverty and feistiness. I told him about going up into the hills with his father, to dip a cup of water from the Pappert Well above Balloch and that he’d be going back there to find the three trees young and shining. I sang him the old songs—Dream Angus and By yon bonnie banks—and was just barely able to choke out Mairie’s Wedding, the song sung at his own wedding. I told him about how he’d met Wee Mary Matheson, and all over again how much he was loved. The breathing was becoming still more quiet, but I kept my eyes fixed on his. It seemed as though he was looking at me, though that might have been a wished illusion, a trick of light. I told him about his honeymoon on the Isle of Luing, and then I recited part of one of his own poems, written to my mother:
“and we laughed and lay in the heather, and how I loved you there”
And just at that moment, I realized the breath had stopped. The lid of his left eye slid closed. I watched a moment or two longer to be sure, then stroked the other eyelid shut, as he had done for his own father more than fifty years before, and sat holding his hand.
“Catastrophe theory” is the name for a kind of mathematical analysis developed in the 1970s to describe the ways in which a system crosses from one stable equilibrium state to another. It applies to ‘dissipative systems’—a pendulum, a steam engine, a human body—that exchange energy with a larger environment. These are systems that will eventually run down, reach some rest condition or ‘equilibrium.’ Such a system can have more than one equilibrium state. Imagine a lake in a mountain landscape. The water in it may be held by a scoop of geology in a basin high above the river far below. It is at rest there. But if the lip of rock that holds it in place wears away, molecule by molecule, the system will reach a cusp, a state of instability. And suddenly the boundary may be breached, the water will rush down to the lower basin. A major change to the system has resulted from one last, minute change in the external variables that affect it.
Catastrophe theory relies on deep mathematical models related to how singularities are classified. But the theory does not enable us to make precise quantitative predictions of the future. It cannot tell us exactly what route a water droplet poised at the top of a divide will take, which basin of attraction it will fall into among the available options. It only tells us that there are patterns of change and we can recognize them after the fact.
Life is a ‘basin of attraction,’ a tendency towards a stable, self-perpetuating equilibrium, a lake cupped for a while in a mountainous geography. In this sense, my father’s death was catastrophic, a sudden draining away. Was it tragic?
In some senses, yes. Alzheimer had been a cruel joke on a creative man. After all the years of struggling to raise a family, he had begun to write more seriously; he had taken some classes, written a wonderful brief memoir of his father and started work on a novel based on his experiences as a gunner in the Merchant Marines. He had the skills and story-telling ability to make it work. But then, about fifty pages in, he suddenly wasn’t e-mailing us new episodes any more. He seemed curiously stuck. It was a while before I realized it wasn’t just writer’s block. He couldn’t hold the story in his head to work on it. We didn’t understand this was the first early warning sign of more than a decade of pervasive cognitive loss. Had he been given only a couple of years longer before the disease set in, he would have managed that book—I know he would—and we would have it now, rescued from forgetfulness. And in some ways, you might say he was ‘tragically flawed.’ He could have spent his earlier years in a more focused way, with less alcohol, creating more, sooner.
In some ways, no. His life wasn’t about his success as a poet, and those were not his only gifts. He wasn’t John Keats, cut off at the age of 24. And his quiet death was a release. That last walk behind his body, past the blank faces and clutching hands of the dementia ward, filled me with relief. Never again would I have to leave him here.
Grief, the sensation of tragic pain, was a delayed wave that only hit several days later. The ocean floor had shifted, far out to sea, and the flooding impact finally arrived. I huddled like a small monkey in a cruel experiment, weeping for the young father I suddenly remembered and needed, who had abandoned me.
We may live inside a giant black hole.
A smallish collapsed star is very dense—a teaspoon of matter, if you could find a teaspoon strong enough to scoop it out, would weigh an enormous amount. But curiously, as black holes get larger, they become less dense. The collapse of matter weighing about 100 million times as much as our sun would form a black hole about as dense as ordinary water. A black hole with a mass equal to the mass of our observable universe would be about as dense as—well—the observable universe, writes physicist Lawrence M. Krauss.
However, if we do live inside a singularity, it is not one that strips us down to a few defining characteristics, a single wavelength. Whatever form of singularity exists at points in the universe, it still allows us multiple, differentiated features of matter and energy, a spectrum of light. It allows islands of order to cohere. Catastrophe is ordinary, inevitable, though we may not spend much of our lives in its immediate vicinity. And catastrophe is something that doesn’t quite happen—the tragedy arrives, the monolithic pain grips us, yet the world does not come to an end.
• “…radiation would climb through the colour scale …” A number of books about the history of quantum physics cover the “ultraviolet catastrophe” and its implications for Max Planck’s decision to treat light as a collection of quantized particles. See It Must be Beautiful: Great equations of Modern Science edited by Graham Farmelo, pp. 6-12
• “As the Greek philosopher Archytas pointed out ….” See Henning Genz, Nothingness (p. 81)
• “A black hole is a simple object…” There are many descriptions of the characteristics of black holes, including Brian Greene’s excellent The Fabric of the Cosmos. (See page 477 ff.)
• “The comic is often paired with the tragic, but the two concepts are asymmetrical…” See Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 96. Her discussion of tragedy continues through the following chapter.
• At six months, babies will have “developed a bond with a mother/caregiver that is unique and close to irreplaceable.” See Chapter 6 (“Grief ”) of Melvin Konner’s excellent book, The Tangled Wing.
• “Catastrophe theory is the name for a kind of mathematical analysis…” Catastrophe theory, its development by René Thom and its implications, are explained with exceptional clarity in Mathematics and the Unexpected, by Ivar Ekeland.
• “… the density required to form a black hole with a mass equal to the mass of the observable universe…” See Lawrence M. Krause, The Physics of Star Trek, p. 44.
This essay is reprinted in Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science, published by the University of Alberta Press in fall, 2011.
Image Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory). 1843