What follows is Part 1 of 2 of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time,” which combines definitions from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with an urgent discussion about race relations in Canada and beyond in the late 1990s. This essay was originally published in Toronto’s FUSE Magazine in 1998. After sending Philip my commentary, “Physics of the Impossible,” which speculatively discusses her book-length poem Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) in relation to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, she sent me this essay. Since it only appears in the back issue of FUSE, I am presenting it here with her permission.
Before Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal mathematics and Gertrude Stein’s roses, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote about a primal plant, “Urpflanze,” which was constructed as a leaf within a leaf within a leaf. I wonder if his Platonic vision for this plant, from which all other plants derived, was an early imagining of fractal mathematics and response to fractal forms in the natural world (coast lines, human migration patterns, Romanesco broccoli). Visual depictions of fractals have no beginnings or endings in time, no inside or outside in space, and self-similarity and repetition occur at all discernible scales. To my eye, these aspects of visual fractals are pleasing. I am also dissatisfied by the undeviating periodicity of fractals.
In 1869, the first version of the Periodic Table of Elements was created by Dmitri Mendeleev to illustrate the known chemical elements of the time and predict new ones. Elements are distinguished by having a single type of atom, and as they are discovered by scientists, the table grows. But what of the elements classified and discovered by poets, elements not made of atoms but language? Is poetry a kind of periodic table of language where poets chart, predict, and make elements as alchemists? Perhaps the P.T.O.E. is itself a P.O.E.M.
One under-acknowledged and yet groundbreaking phenomenon of our time is that, in addition to some poets responding to science as a way to think about language, poetry, and science in more novel ways, some poets are practicing science by making poetry and therefore making something else from practicing both science and poetry at the same time.
One of the central unified field theories of quantum gravity is string theory or superstring theory, where spacetime is conceived of as an ambiguous ecology. In string theory, the known universe is thought to be part of a larger wilderness of universes, the multiverse, which is comprised of multiple and perhaps infinite dimensions of space and time that are created by collisions between subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy known as open and closed strings. The theory defines the evolution of space and matter from the connections between these vibrating membranes of energy. String theorists aim to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity into a single description of physical reality that is often referred to in contemporary physics as a Theory of Everything.
Upon reading Christine Wertheim’s mUtter-bAbel (Counterpath Books, 2014), where Wertheim tells the “story of language and some bodies of the word made flesh in a child’s imagination” through visual poems often highlighting the letter “o” that sonically treat words as “vocal organs,” I thought about the open and closed strings in string theory and wondered if the author was—consciously or without intent—responding to the colliding, subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy that string theorists think create the multiple dimensions of the multiverse.
Erwin Schrödinger developed the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat—where a cat, sealed in a box, is both alive and dead at the same time in a quantum entanglement until an observer looks at the cat, at which point the cat is either alive or dead—to criticize quantum mechanics by showing how the theory breaks down at larger scales and cannot logically represent reality.