The Sciences

The Road to science

Cosmic VarianceBy Daniel HolzDec 4, 2009 1:48 PM

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Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I find his wordsmithing absolutely compelling, right up there with Salman Rushdie (which is high praise in my book). Both McCarthy and Rushdie carry the mantle of Vladimir Nabokov (which is the highest praise in my book). Here's a taste from No Country for Old Men, musing on the arrow of time (I apologize for the length; I couldn't help myself):


He watched her, his chin in his hand. All right, he said. This is the best I can do. He straightened out his leg and reached into his pocket and drew out a few coins and took one and held it up. He turned it. For her to see the justice of it. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and weighed it and he flipped it spinning in the air and caught it and slapped it down on his wrist. Call it, he said. She looked at him, at his outheld wrist. What? She said.

Call it. I wont do it. Yes you will. Call it God would not want me to do that. Of course he would. You should try to save yourself. Call it. This is your last chance. Heads, she said. He lifted his hand away. The coin was tails. I'm sorry. She didnt answer. Maybe it's for the best. She looked away. You make it like it was the coin. But you're the one. It could have gone either way. The coin didnt have no say. It was just you. Perhaps. But look at it my way. I got here the same way the coin did. She sat sobbing softly. She didnt answer. For things at a common destination there is a common path. Not always easy to see. But there. Everything I ever thought has turned out different, she said. There aint the least part of my life I could of guessed. Not this, not none of it. I know. You wouldnt of let me off noway. I had no say in the matter. Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning. She sat sobbing. She shook her head. Yet even though I could have told you how all of this would end I thought it not too much to ask that you have a final glimpse of hope in the world to lift your heart before the shroud drops, the darkness. Do you see? Oh God, she said. Oh God. I'm sorry. She looked at him a final time. You dont have to, she said. You dont. You dont. He shook his head. You're asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesnt allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people dont believe that there can be such a person. You can see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That they could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You're asking that I second say the world. Do you see? Yes, she said, sobbing. I do. I truly do. Good, he said. That's good. Then he shot her.


Cormac happens to live in Santa Fe. I bump into him now and again, usually at the Santa Fe Institute, where he does much of his writing. The SFI is one of the most beautiful research venues I know of. Cascading levels of interaction space, with sofas and blackboards, ringed by offices with views of the mountains and the valleys surrounding Santa Fe. Populated by an eclectic and stimulating group of people. And there are really, really good cream puffs at afternoon tea. It's just up the street from where I live, and I should spend more time there. Cormac is wonderfully interesting, and not as dark as much of his work (e.g., The Road, No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, Child of God). It also turns out Cormac is old school. He has written all of his novels to date on an Olivetti Lettera 32 manual typewriter. Since undoubtedly the majority of our readers are unfamiliar with this ancient technology, suffice it to say that it is roughly halfway between a stone tablet and an iPhone. After 46 years, Cormac's typewriter is giving up. Some of the keys no longer function. And although there is a genre of literature predicated on omitting letters, Cormac is a traditionalist, and prefers a full alphabet. Thus he is auctioning off his typewriter (he has already acquired an antediluvian replacement). Most importantly, the proceeds of the auction will benefit the Santa Fe Institute. In some ways, this is an opportunity akin to owning Shakespeare's quill. And you directly contribute to the scientific enterprise! The auction is today. Bid here. (Note: they're expecting at least $15k, so it's not for the faint of heart.)

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