JF Ptak Science Books Post 1855
Where is the center?
Where is the center of the Earth, of religion, of the United States, of the universe, of art, of consciousness, of seriousness, of complexity?
The center of stuff throughout history has been an almost entirely shifting matrix, a collection of vortices coming from Jupiter’s strongbox–a three dimensional representation of the location of their shifting centers over time would make an interesting Fibonacci-like display, I think.
The question may seem meaningless at first, but people have long asked it of nearly everything within their experience, trying to find the center of their world and universe, of their selves, of their religion, of their country, of politics, of art and music, and on through the Encyclopedia of Things that Could Have a Center.
Take for example the questions of where the center of the Earth, or solar system, or galaxy, or universe might be? There have been answers to these question more often than not over time, though the answers have been shifting. The center of the Earth has certainly stayed more-or-less constant over thousands of years, though the stuff in the center has been swarming with change, from being hollow, to being filled with magma, to being a solid magnetic core, to being occupied by Mole Men, to housing the seat of the Inferno, or to be simply located on the surface of the sphere at Jerusalem (as the old T-maps have shown for hundreds of years), and on and on. Working backwards, the center of the universe has drastically changed over time–for thousands of years, it was assumed that the Earth was the center of all things, until it wasn’t (that beginning mostly with Copernicus, and then challenged with Galileo’s use of the telescope and his discovery of an order of magnitude more stars, etc.). And then William Herschel beautifully represented the shape of the galaxy in 1782, placing our solar system in a far from central location. The center of the universe’s fate changed along with that of the Earth, incredibly so beginning with the Big Bang and then with the possibilities of their being a universe without boundaries. And then of course there’s multiple universe theories, and worm holes, and the space time continuum, which complicates things even further, making the discussion of a “center” pretty much nonsensical.
Simpler things can be as complicated–where is the center of the United States? If we measure the center for the lower 48 states, it will be different than if we included the two far-flung states, or protectorates like Puerto Rico. The geographical center is one thing; another might be where the population center might be–that has made a beautiful map published over time by the U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce), showing the star of the center moving not-so-slowly westward into Ohio over the last 20 censuses or so. And where is the heart of the country? Where is the heart of the West? Better yet, where is the center of the West (or North, or South, or Mid-West)? To answer where the center of these places might be you’ve got to first locate where those geographical ideas begin and end, which for many is a tricky subject, making it a matter of opinion as to where the center of these places might be.
The center in art had been a findable thing for some time, though more recently people like the Impressionists and Kandinsky have shown that the center might not exist, and it might not exist along with anything that is recognizable as a form of nature, representation and the center falling away completely. Perhaps this is like finding the center of a decade or year or month, or week or day or second. The parameters keep getting both smaller and larger, the ability to measure halves of things or the center of a second growing almost incalculably small, small enough to reveal that in this Zeno-paradoxical way, that there is no center because there are no boundaries; getting half-way to something into infinity doesn’t tactually get you there.
The center of balance, the center of levity, of concern; the center of emotion–another center that has been mapped all over the human body, from the heart to the head to the limbic system to a confusion of freudian desires to an inelegant and intractable collection of stimuli and response. The center becomes more of a belief-but even there, center can have no more a constant than change. The center of Christianity may be Christ (though it wasn’t always so, witness the Mary Cults through the first few centuries of Christianity), but then you have to understand which Christ it is coming from which Bible, the center becoming more a concern of interpretation and spread over many Christian groups than one solid center. And when you spread the field to include all religions and you expand the center notion to a primum mobile or collective or whatever, then the center gets very big—and in some religions, it is nothing but the center.
It seems to me that if the issue of finding the center of big and small things alike is difficult, then why does it seem so easy for people to determine and adhere (and sometimes to believe in at all costs) to expansive ideas like “normalcy”?
A history of normalcy is one that looks at the things deemed to be “normal”, or standard, or acceptable at one time that became not so over the course of time. Buying and selling human beings, women and their children being property of the husband, Chinese immigrants in America not have (any) legal rights, classification by skin color or sex or financial status or political belief are a few good candidates (among thousands) for this history. It is an interesting proposition to think about—what things around you, or better yet, what thing you think or say or do, that look good and acceptable today might look embarrassing and unacceptable thirty years hence. In 1935 one issue might’ve been accepting the codified behavior of treating women as less than equal of men, deserving less in the workplace (if they were in the workplace), less rights in the courts, less deserving of equality in general; by 1965, this viewpoint may have well been in the minority; by 1995 it begins to look fossilized; by 2025 it might well be unbelievable. What are the issues of 2010 that could be the equivalent of the 1935 issue?
I'm just wondering why it is that even when people cannot find the center of almost everything that has ever been, that a strict and damningly judgmental regimen of "normalcy" can be so easily instituted, and enforced? This especially since part of the code of adjudicated normalcy for one generation seems mostly gone by the next, that the important becomes trite, and the socially disgusting becomes acceptable. Just as the concept of the center becomes elusive, so too does the standardized idea of normalcy become vaprorous over time.