Universe Extraordinaire

Photo Credit: James Keefe Photography

If you’re keeping up with the syllabus, you’ll note that the assignment for Wednesday, April 11 isn’t actually a reading. It’s a watching of a speech clip that Stephen Hawking gave at the 2011 European Zeitgeist event.  So of course if you did your homework, you now know who Stephen Hawking is, (if you didn’t already), and you also can use Zeitgeist in a sentence like:

Zeitgeist, the concept, means the spirit of the times.(Not to be confused with Zeitgeist: The Movie, a 2007 film which is actually one pretty good example of our current Zeitgeist, the concept.  Can anyone say Conspiracy Theory? Can anyone say cynical?)

There’s also Google’s Zeitgeist event, a gathering of the “leading thinkers of our time,” which takes its name from the concept and looks pretty cool.  Zeitgeist minds, a collection of videos from the events, is the source of the aforementioned Stephen Hawking speech.

What are other examples of the current Zeitgeist?

To return to the neti-neti leif motif of this semester, here’s an example of what Zeitgeist isn’t.  This story I’m about to tell is too small to be Zeitgeist.  It’s too personal, just between you and me.  Yet it’s just one more uncanny occurrence of the way our seemingly random universe happens to fall into a particular order that enhances what I’m hoping to teach you and these gifts never cease to delight me.

I’ll tell it in threes, you know why.

Part One: Or, Why I Consider Stephen Hawking To Be My Own Personal Physicist.

I’m in an on again/off again writing group. We’re an eclectic bunch writing everything from poetry to crime novels to nonfiction.  We meet at a Long Beach El Torito and scratch out lines over chips, salsa, and Coronas or Diet Coke. What keeps us together is a shared love of finding the perfect way to say exactly what we mean. One day, several years ago, I got an e-mail from one of our members.  It began like this:

Hi everyone – sorry to be tardy, but i would be grateful to get your comments on the beginning (just a dozen or so pages) of my new book with Stephen Hawking. 

To be perfectly honest, the brilliant writer didn’t need help from us. He and Stephen pretty much had it all figured out.  And even though I personally never bought in to the premise of the book –  that one must exclusively choose between belief in a higher being and belief that Inflation theory and M-theory elegantly explain the ways of the universe – I saved the e-mail because I loved how it showed that even the top scientific minds of our century still understand the value of getting good writerly feedback. The book, The Grand Design, was released in September, 2010; it’s the book Hawking references in the film clip.

Part Two: Or, Why I Want You To Know Who Stephen Hawking Is

When I created the syllabus, way back in January, I figured there was a better than 50/50 chance that you’d not know who Stephen Hawking is. (Hence the requirement to “quick research him before you watch.” And for those of you rolling your eyes right now, thinking I underestimate your knowledge: deep, deep apology. I’m talking average student here. Not you, of course.)  Even though this is a writing class, not a physics class, not a pop culture class, not a Who’s Who In The World class, I believe that the more a writer is engaged with all aspects of intelligent conversation about ideas, the better the writing.  As I mused, way back in January, about how to encourage exploration of this concept of self, I knew that at this point in the semester I wanted to continue the vein of scientific consideration which we began with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Additionally, the physical challenges that Hawking faces on a daily basis, seemed to tie in thematically with The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, foiled against the perspective of Autobiography of a Face. 

Of course those are superficial reasons and I rarely stop at skin deep.

Part Three: Physics Is Hot Right Now and Stephen Hawking Is Everywhere. Right Now.

Quite serendipitously, Stephen Hawking appeared as a guest on The Big Bang Theory  Thursday, April 5, a night within spitting distance of the assignment for you to learn who he is.  How does it happen that a Hawking assignment written months ago coincides with his TV appearance?  I don’t know. And I really don’t care, but I do get immense pleasure when the universe aligns for us like that.  Maybe you saw the show already.  Cool. If not, you can watch the full episode, here.  Or, if you want to view a short clip, click here.  Coincidentally, The Big Bang Theory, now in its 5th season, posted a 27 percent increase in ratings according a recent New York Times article.  (Read here.)  And by the way, I’m not saying that network sitcoms are the best way to get information, but I am saying that sometimes things you learn in school have real world applications while you’re watching TV.  Did you know that Stephen Hawking also appeared on Star Trek and, in cartoon form, on The Simpsons?

So now you can carry on a conversation about who Stephen Hawking is when you’re yacking about the latest episode of some TV show.  Oh yes, you’ll also be able to summarize and analyze his views on what we humans are, and, even better, share those views with others to incite conversation, dialogue, and idea exchange.  You might ultimately circle closer to a composition of self.  I mean really, if we humans are…”mere collections of fundamental particles of nature” are we any different from roses, even the beautiful red ones catching sunshine on my kitchen counter?

Oh yes, you knew I’d return to that, Composing Self, didn’t you.  Well, once again, you are right.

About Catherine Keefe

Catherine Keefe is the founding and managing editor of *dirtcakes* a journal of poetry, creative nonfiction, art and photography. Her creative nonfiction essays, interviews and book reviews have appeared nationally. She teaches undergraduates how to Write About Literature, or Write Creative Nonfiction, or Compose Self at Chapman University in Orange, CA.
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