Let's start this rumination with a phrase made familiar by a recent world leader: “Everybody knows” what dark matter is.
You might not. Dark matter is the vast amount of as-yet unobserved matter in the universe. It’s dark because it doesn’t interact with anything (at least, that we know of). No, you haven’t spotted it lurking in the corner of your apartment. Or have you?
You might not have a physics background. I don’t, either. I’m also not that great at mathematics, beyond the practical stuff we need for shopping or bills. Many people know more than I do about these disciplines, and they build things like bridges and buildings and storm runoff drains and automobiles and such. I’m glad they know mathematics and laws of physics and all that. Reading their stuff is difficult for me. I suspect they'd be yawning by now if they were reading this.
To them, I represent the Great Ignorant Unwashed. People for whom they design things but get very little appreciation for it (1). You might say, that’s how it should be. After all, if all we did was go around expressing our gratitude for the invention of spoons and smartphones, we’d never get around to doing anything with them.
Instead, we take advantage of their usefulness, just as seagulls use rocks to break shells.
There's a certain utility to the middle part of life, a need many of us have to be able to do something fundamentally useful and interesting, whether it's working on a new product, providing a better service, satisfying an immediate need in a new way, or discovering something likely to benefit a slice of our world. I worked in this world for decades, and here on the other side of it, looking back, I wonder at the progress we've made and any part I played in it. (2) Certainly it's a different world, despite any efforts to leave well enough alone or to return to things as they were. The tech time arrow flies one way, taking populations with it. After all, even such things as climate change and today's brand of populism and misinformation are products both of our technoligical progress and our sheer numbers. We acknowledge, even revere, our accomplishments and do not wish to be reminded of how little evolutionary progress we've made.
Around each and every one of us, dark matter looms. Our eyes see only a small part of the light spectrum. Our ears hear only a subset of available sound. Electronic waves and cell phone conversations penetrate our bodies, and we're not aware. Some of us may sense there's more to the world, but it seems perpetually beyond reach. It may reveal itself in inspiration, flashes of insight, a sense of a presence in the room when there's none. Or voices we hear after a loved one passes on. These last examples are a playground for skeptics: It's our own brains fooling us. They claim. I wonder.
Our brains are dark. Visible light is a trick of eyesight. Most of what happens during any day, our unconscious brains handle, while our cortices claim supremacy. But there's even more to dark matter. There is the dark matter of things as yet unknown to us; and the dark matter of our own ignorance regarding both this fact and its implications for us as we struggle to live well together.
When performance appears effortless -- explaining a new theory, performing a Schubert sonata, writing a novel at once timely and familiar to millions of readers -- we consumers forget that this is but the last stage in a long and difficult process, that of stumbling, falling, getting up, falling again, on and on, until finally, muscle memory permits some glimmer of ease to penetrate. In our chosen professions, we push each day against the dark matter that surrounds us. We strive to improve. I learn every day how to write, and will never, in my own mind, write well. The day I think I am writing well is the day I've given up on learning how to write; and that is a perilous day, indeed.
When I'm walking alone, thinking about what to write or how to write it, trying to work out a problem, and I stumble across something that feels insightful, have I discovered a new way to express an old thought? Or have I discovered a piece of fool's gold, something to me shiny and appealing but to others mundane? Is what was heretofore my personal, undiscovered dark matter nothing more than an everyday glob tripped over by countless predecessors? What is discovery, and when is it more than that which dazzles us and bores others?
This problem of newness, the dazzle of novelty followed by the "seen it before" mentality that kicks in for all of us - what do we do with it? This is at the heart of teaching, this ability to remain -- or appear to be -- fascinated by the curiosity of others, and so encourage them to discover what we already know. (3) Why rob someone of the joy of discovering new things -- a joy that begins when we are babies exploring new shapes and sounds and that (if we're persistent) never really ends?
If I don't realize how the solar system really moves (not an orderly set of planets moving on a flat plane in static space, but rather a hurtling set of star, planets, moons, asteroids and comets spinning through space like a gigantic (to us) but tiny (to the universe) pulsating blob (4)) -- does that make me a dull person? Or just dull to those who knew this already, or to those who don't know and don't care?
When something comes easy to us but is difficult for others, do we have the right to be impatient with them? Shouldn't we rather take joy in watching them push through to discover an answer we already knew? We encourage babies; when do we shift to discouragement? When it comes time to be "practical," to choose a career, to be a "useful eater?" (5) In the workplace, when does the joy of creativity yield to the yoke of management?
What's the magic age at which you really know things? 30? 40? Never? When do you or I decide to let dark matter, like sleeping dogs, lie?
If we are overjoyed, even briefly, at our own discoveries (however obvious they may be to our friends), why would we wish to rob others of that same joy? Why delight in bursting someone else's bubble when our own bubbles are so fragile and ephemeral?
My son is now a busy executive at a major company, flying higher than I ever did. He no longer asks for advice about work, about dealing with people, the complexities of an organization, what it means to put together a strategy, plans, customer engagements, all the rest.(*) He travels farther on his job, mentally and physically, than I ever did. My daughter-in-law is similarly mobile, and while today they live in Amsterdam, tomorrow it might be Singapore, and after that, someplace else. Such is the nature of those for whom country is a residence, not a history.
Are they "American?" I suppose so. But these days, what does it mean (other than paperwork and taxes) for someone of their inclination to "belong" to a specific nation? As the world urbanizes more and more, will we find that binding up whole swathes of land under a single banner makes sense? Or will we return to city-states -- Boston for Massachusetts, Los Angeles and San Francisco for California, Chicago for Illinois? And what about all the people in between? Is America an experiment in destruction or instead a migration to a new-yet-old way of living? Are we Americans seceding already from our nation and becoming city mice and country mice? Or has this, in some way, always been the case?
Specialization accompanies this secession, and social media (with its instant reinforcements and anger-driven profits) reinforces it. We become islands of information surrounded by pools of dark matter. We require others to light up that dark matter for us, and we and they engage in surface sharing, lighting for each other only a portion of our separate, dark mountains. We almost always ask of each other what it is we do for a living and how to describe that "doing." We reserve the tougher conversations about life, living, aspiring, despairing, for fewer people, or for our "safe" areas on social media, where thinking mirrors ours and sometimes sends us to fulfill our own promises but all too often spirals us into a nightmare of comparison, where we feel we do not measure up; worse, to a reinforcement hell, falling victim to those who enjoy encouraging us to despair; and, so despairing, to violent acts.
Where do we go to illuminate our dark mountains and share that light with others? What language can we use?
If I as a cybersecurity professional want to have a conversation about PKI, AES Encryption, OT / IoT compromises, API security, quantum cryptography, will I see my doctor about that? If she wants to have a conversation on the latest research regarding the role of choline in developments leading to alzheimer's, peer-reviewed studies on its role as a methyl donor and precursor in the production of cell membranes (6), will she turn to me?
Are we seceding from each other? If so, in the midst of this personal secession, do we still realize how much we need one another?
I push on, knowing that I hold a tiny bright light that illuminates a patch of darkness around me. All the rest is dark matter: That which is and will remain unknown to me; that which when stumbled over becomes obvious to me; that which when stumbled over is new to me but obvious to others. Lastly, there exists that rare moment when I glimpse something not only different for me but different to those all around me; and that, in illuminating this something, I cast for a moment a faintly brighter light.
That is, until someone else comes along, shining a brighter light.
I admire those who practice science (though I don't do it well myself): true practitioners know that what they may be able to discover will briefly push the boundaries, until someone examining that discovery will either build upon it, change or replace it.
While we expand our technical knowledge this way, we must question whether, fundamentally, we have attained more knowledge about ourselves, who we are, what it means to age, why we like certain people and dislike others, how we learn, why we learn, whether we remember names, faces, or opinions, what a handshake feels like, what makes us anxious, how we love, who we choose to guide and who guides us. (7)
The answers we think we've discovered are almost always just new questions waiting to be asked. We go down rabbit holes only to discover that the warren is endless, and that our hard-won discovery, our new information may simply be someone else's disinformation.
We know, truly know, so little, really. We can spend our whole lives teasing truths from the dark clouds that surround us and still end up just about where we started.
The great wisdom of living, then, may be either to accept this as what it is and get on with the practicalities of life; or to insist upon learning, pushing on into the darkness, lighting the way for a brief space of time, for ourselves and for others who matter to us, before our own descent into oblivion.
I leave it for you to decide.
(1) Well, sometimes I’m grateful for their profession when I’m driving over a bridge. But even then, I’m spending my grateful tokens on them and not on the folks who engineered the tires, brakes, engine and all the rest. So there you are: I’m an ignorant, ungrateful chap all around. I quote the Lord of the Rings a lot, and there is one scene where Frodo indicates to Gandalf that he wishes there would be an invasion of dragons in the Shire, to shake the inhabitants out of their social somnolence. Well, we had a pandemic to help do that.
(2) Have I played my part? Am I still playing a role? At what point do I transition to becoming little more than a "useless eater?" (See #5.) At what point do I trade my dignity and self-reliance for dependence on others? And if I reach that point, will I know it? Will I wish to go on? The urge of the organism to survive is powerful; the urge of the fading cortical mind to hang it all up -- how powerful is that? When does it activate? For the suicidal, is the tyranny between their ears, that which drives them to deaths of despair, caused ultimately by nothing more than a chemical imbalance? Or is there more to it? Are reason and rationalization little more than learned responses, themselves little more than reinforced chemical pathways?
(3) Or do we? When does encouragement yield to amazement at the discovery by someone young of something heretofore either unknown or ignored by elders? The sacrifice of curiosity to the demands of the ever-present, transactional world is well-known tragedy. Equally well-known are examples of innovations created by the young (or by wise observers of the very young); see https://www.theclever.com/15-youngest-inventors-of-all-time/ for one such popular example. For more on the loss of creativity, see https://genuinecontact.net/paperclips-creativity/
And for more on the tragedy of excising creativity from schools, see any of the late Sir Ken Robinson's talks.
(4) It's interesting what you find when you're not looking for it, but you encounter through the generosity of others -- therefore, this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FIZZTQzLXww
(5) "useful eater" is a play on "useless eater." I've known the term for quite some time and had thought it originated in Marxist / Leninist thinking, i.e., dogs as "useless eaters." However, I find no such reference and instead, find it surfacing first in the work of Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, "Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life," which lends support to the Nazi eugenics programs; Hilter used the term "useless eaters" in this sense. However, this in itself must be treated carefully and in context: eugenics was used in this period in among other places, the United States: See https://lifeunworthyoflife.com/ for one such argument; also the Supreme Court ruling, Buck v. Bell (1927), giving us this famous Oliver Wendell Holmes phrase, "Three generations of imbiciles are enough": https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2017/05/02/buck-v-bell/ . Of course, today the term is widely used to substantiate theories that a ruling elite is using current events such as COVID, vaccinations, inequality and the like to achieve world domination through population control. I won't take sides here, other than to point out that "one man's meat is another man's poison" - or, one person's enlightment is another person's dark matter.
(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31560162/ -- an article where I understand the meaning of individual words but not as they are combined. That, by the way, encapsulates the value of information, which is a set of data whose individual values we may understand, but whose overall value, when combined, is best determined by those whose accumulated knowledge enables them to do so. Therefore, much of the value of information is dark matter to those of us too unenlightened to appreciate it. Small wonder that these days, "speaking in tongues" may have less to do with evolved languages like Dutch or Japanese and more to do with evolved professional tongues, such as cyber-speak or health-speak.
(7) No amount of ChatGPT or any other artificial insemination of purported intelligence can bridge the gap created when we speak to or at each other instead of conversing.
(*) I wrote this while staying with him / his family in Amsterdam, and wouldn't you know, about a week after writing this he came to me for advice on a thorny problem he'd encountered at work. I stand corrected, happily.