April 17, 2019

A Black Hole Voyage, from “Zarathustra” to “Doctor Who”

…the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with black holes furiously consuming everything around them.
—Dennis Overbye, New York Times, April 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The black hole has become Dennis Overbye’s muse. He holds it to the light like a diamond flashing metaphors and analogies. Thanks to Overbye, the grim morning ritual of the New York Times became a joyous reading experience last Thursday. For a glorious half hour, his word-drunk response to the phenomenon consumed the gloom of the Trump-driven news cycle and put the universe back in balance.

The day began with a cat, a sixteen-year-old black and white female who expects me to sit on the chaise by the window with her every morning and read to her from whatever book is handy, W.S. Merwin’s poetry, Green Eggs and Ham, King Lear, she doesn’t care, she’s not picky as long as I read quietly and her stomach gets rubbed, gently, gently, at the same time. On the morning in question, the book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and as fate would have it, I was reading the first paragraph under the heading “On the Afterworldly.” Which is how I went from Nietzsche’s view of the world as “the work of a suffering and tortured god” to the Times’ front page photograph of “a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it”; from the Overman’s “colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity” to the  Overbye’s “smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.” Says Zarathustra: “Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you —  colored smoke this seemed to me before creative eyes …. Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself.”

A few minutes later it’s drunken joy for the sufferer of the news of the day to read of “Monster runaway stars,” “the behemoth of nothingness,” “the doughnut of doom,” and “the unknown forces that reign at the center, where theoretically, the density approaches infinity and smoke pours from nature’s computer.”

Thus spoke Overbye, and on the facing page of the Times a feast of subheads: “A black hole is a hungry beast,” “Black holes can sing,” “Black holes are stellar tombstones,” “‘A black hole has no hair,’” “A black hole is not forever.”

Einstein’s Confirmation

Drunken joy it is indeed to find that far from merely consuming everything that comes near it, the black hole in the galaxy Messier 87 can be both artist and art, inspiring a veritable United Nations of astronomer/photographers to create “a telescope as big as the earth” to help bring the beast into focus for a portrait. How great that instead of a symbol of perpetual cosmic extinction, the black hole can become a “place to look for answers,” a source that gives more than it takes. And where better to read the story than in the hometown of the poet laureate of “spooky action at a distance” on the 100th anniversary of the eclipse that confirmed the Theory of Relativity. As one Indian astrophysicist quoted by Overbye puts it, Einstein “must be totally chuffed” to find that his theory “has been stress-tested under conditions of extreme gravity, and looks to have held up.” On the heavily annotated center spread covering the kitchen table, I drew a circle around totally chuffed, an expression that’s new to me but sounds as negative as it does positive; sure enough, according to Dictionary.com, while it can mean “pleased, happy” and dates back to the 1520s, a second British “dialectal chuff” has an opposite meaning, “displeased, gruff” (1832). Perhaps it was the time travel element, 2019 to 1832 to 1520, that led me to write “Dr. Who!” in large excited letters at the bottom of page A17, directly under a sentence about the “tamer of extra-galactic beasts.”

Orbiting the Black Hole

It’s been months since my wife and I stalled in our voyage through the Light Fantastic with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor Who (Patti Smith’s favorite incarnation) and his effusive sidekick Rose (a plumptious Billie Piper). For the first few episodes of the second series (originally shown on the BBC in the spring 2006), it was fun to see Tennant, the actor we knew as Broadchurch’s dour Scottish DSI Alec Hardy, playing the Time Lord with all the wild-eyed gleeful panache of Monty Python’s Eric Idle. In the thrall of black hole mania, we returned to Amazon Prime just in time for “The Impossible Planet” about a space ship stationed on the planet Krop Tor, which is “suspended in perpetual geostationary orbit” around a black hole without being sucked in, presumably an impossibility, thus the episode title.

“A black hole’s a dead star,” the Doctor explains to Rose in his giddy way, as if he and the BH had been intimate in a previous existence. “It collapses in on itself, in and in and in until the matter’s so dense and tight it starts to pull everything else in too. Nothing in the universe can escape it. Light, gravity, time. Everything just gets pulled inside and crushed.”

What keeps Krop Tor from being consumed is the safety zone created by a gravity funnel that takes its energy from somewhere deep inside the planet, the source of which is revealed in the next episode, “The Satan Pit,” where the Doctor descends to the lower depths of the planet to confront a gigantic horned beast, a dead ringer for Medieval visions of the Devil. Actually, it’s not so much a confrontation as it is a brief hyperkinetic lecture from the Time Lord on the myths and legends of a million worlds in which he impudently expands on the mystery, like Sherlock Holmes to the Devil’s Watson; it seems that Satan has been imprisoned in the dungeon of Krop Tor, the perfect prison, absolute, eternal. Open it to free the beast and the gravity field would collapse, sending the planet plummeting into the maw of the black hole. One way or the other, it’s the Doughnut of Doom for Satan.

Consumed by the Telly

Though it also aired in 2006 and is set in 1954, another episode could be about Brexit phobia, the black hole that’s consuming England at the moment. Like the best of Dr. Who, “The Idiot’s Lantern” has a quality of deadly playfulness, with a Dickensian victim-villain named Mr. Magpie who has a television repair shop in the Muswell Hill area of North London (home of those Muswell Hillbillies the Kinks). Poor Magpie (Ron Cook) is in the power of an evil force that suddenly appeared on the screen of one of his sets in the form of a chirpy, fulsome, seemingly harmless middleaged woman with a BBC accent (Maureen Lipman). Calling itself The Wire, it plans to take advantage of the unprecedented television event of the coronation by forcing Mr. Magpie to embed each telly he sells with a black-hole-like ray that beams out and zaps viewers’ faces. The master plan is to plug the force into Alexandra Palace, the biggest TV transmitter in North London, so that all the good souls gathered in cozy parlors to watch the crowning of the Queen will be consumed. As her plot approaches its apotheosis, the woman on the screen falls into a Wicked Witch of Oz feeding frenzy, screaming “Hungry! Hungry! Feed me! Feast, feasting!” Of course the Doctor, with the help of a Dickensian lad, foils the evil one’s scheme, which is to “harvest half the population of London.”

Calling Doctor Who

We’ll need a stateside visit from more than one Dr. Who to deal with all the black holes we’re orbiting, not least the one consuming the Republican party and a third of the nation. Me, I’ll keep reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra and listen to Richard Strauss’s tone poem of the same name that Stanley Kubrick borrowed for 2001, and then ride out the storm with King Lear, Moby Dick, and the new and final season of Game of Thrones.