In the second episode of the second season of Transparent, Ali Pfefferman attends an astronomy class in a dark stadium lecture hall. She’s back at the university, perhaps to finish her undergraduate degree before she hits 35. A disembodied voice pontificates about a video of the galaxies.
When we look up at the sky, we’re not seeing the universe as it is today, but as it was hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago. The multitudinous past of every star sending photons hurtling through space. Each one a clue as to our origins. What you are looking at is the past.
Something about that assertion bothered me. The next scene focused my doubt. In that scene, Ali’s brother and his girlfriend watch the sonogram of their baby growing in her womb. The contrast between looking at the past and looking at the future was just too facile, too obvious, and too shallow.
Nevertheless, for the last few months I have been picking at the question of whether we really can see the past before us in the present. It would be easy to dismiss the Transparent scene as just an artistic rendition of a science class, except that I found course materials using similar language from the University of Tennessee and Cornell. Space. com, which bills itself as “the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news,” explains in all seriousness Why the universe is all history.
It would also be easy to take apart the language of Ali’s astronomy lecturer, beginning with the rhetorical vacuity of “multitudinous past.” Immediately in the scene, his students are not even looking at the photons sent “hurtling through space” by stars “hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago.” They are looking at photons flashing on a screen that have been generated by a machine to represent images of star photons, images generated when these star photons impinge on other instruments (computerized telescopes), sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, sometimes reconfigured and “interpreted” for comprehensibility.
But let’s set such quibbling aside. When Gale and I were down at the shore in Chincoteague, Virginia last week, we could look up at the night sky and see millions of stars clearly. The sky was clear and we were far from city lights. The starlight we saw had traveled “hundreds, thousands, millions of years.” Were we seeing “the past”? No. Aside from distortions caused by the earth’s atmosphere and the vagaries of our own eyes and eyeglasses, aside from the changes in these photon streams wrought by forces such as galactic winds, stellar winds, and gravitational waves, aside from any forces that might make these photon streams move differently from the way they were moving at the moment they were emitted at their sources, even if these photon streams reached us exactly as they started, we would not be seeing that start, that past. We would be seeing an image of that past. That past is long gone. Some stars are even dead by the time we see them. Seeing them tonight does not bring the past into the present.
I use the word “image” because of my philosophical leanings. Some contemporary scientists and philosophers would talk about “signals” or “information” instead. One of the best books about the interplay of spatial distance and the information embodied in sound and light waves is a book I used to read to Anne Mei as a child, Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake.
In the story a grandmother teaches a little girl not to be afraid of thunderstorms by using the difference between the time lightning reaches our eyes and when we later hear thunder. This difference tells us how far away the storm is from us now. During that time Babushka has Patricia gather ingredients for baking a cake, tasks that involve taking risks. In the process Patricia conquers her fear of heights, of snapping geese, of ill-tempered cows, all the while mastering the storm by measuring how far away it is at each step. So when the storm arrives with a simultaneous flash and boom, Patricia can enjoy cake and tea with her Grandma without fear.
By looking at the stars in the night sky, hearing thunder, and seeing lightning, we use our senses to gather information from the world around us. In my analysis of the video presented by Ali’s lecturer, I emphasized that it was an image of an image. Equally it was a “recording,” a “record.” We not only use our senses to gather information about our world, we record that information on various media in various formats for various purposes, beginning with faulty memory.
I no more see “the past” when I look at the night sky than I see “the past” in this picture of my 8th grade class.This picture was taken almost 60 years ago. It is a recorded image of 12 and 13 year old classmates. All that is present as we look at it now is that image. The past is gone. It’s not coming back. Who would want to go back to their early adolescence?
I’m not trying to overcompensate for the “poetry” of Ali’s lecturer. No. I’m trying to stay prosaic because this picture stirs up deep emotion. Not because I miss the past. No, because of what’s going on today. I’ve been in touch with two of my classmates in this picture. The girl seated second from the right in the second row has been in the hospital for the last few weeks, not having woken up from an operation on a brain tumor. Anne Mei and I visited with her and her husband two years when we went on a campus tour of Penn State. She’s repeatedly invited us to come visit again, but I never “found the time.” Her last message to me was a comment on my resolve to give a middle finger to the trials that modern technology inflicts on those of us who are getting old. “I like your solution, Ken.” I’m sure she’s in there doing the same to modern medicine right now. She’s a redhead.
My other friend, another redhead, is the girl seated third from the left in the third row. She was very sick through grammar school. I was her paperboy and I often brought school work to her house when she was out. The last time I saw her was her 17th birthday party. Because she’d been so sick, over the years I often wondered how she was doing. When the organizers of our 50th high school reunion couldn’t locate her, I really worried. But through the internet, I was able to get in touch with her out in California. To me she has always represented the miracle of life. I’ve said that I intend to visit her this year. And I will after my second knee operation. I will find the time.
(By the way, I’m fifth on the right in the back row.)