Lawrence Weschler is a wonder junkie. He is an awe aficionado. He was a staff writer at the New Yorker for more than 20 years, and he has been writing books about artists, scientists, and eccentrics for decades. The subject of his latest, Waves Passing in the Night, is the famous film and sound engineer Walter Murch, who has a side hobby: deciphering patterns in the universe.
I was at a party trying to articulate Walter Murch's basic theory about the planets right after I read this book, and I felt like it was just beyond my powers of articulation.
For the last 20 years, Walter Murch, otherwise known as probably the most admired and revered film and sound editor in the world—veteran of The Godfather movies, The English Patient, Particle Fever, Apocalypse Now—when he hasn't been off winning Academy Awards and BAFTAs and so forth, he's been tinkering with, rehabilitating, a long-abandoned, degraded, thoroughly despised 18th-century theory about what in his version becomes gravitational astro-acoustics. Which is to say, the notion that there clearly seems to be a pattern to the way in which planets array themselves in terms of their relative distances.
And that pattern matches up with intervals of notes of music.
Yes. He said: Wait a second, I know that formula. That formula is just like the formula for musical octaves. [[Now, Murch is, apart from anything else, a great acoustician. When you go to a movie and see "Dolby 5.1," he was one of the people who invented Dolby 5.1. So he has some standing in this. And he said:]] It looks as though, starting at a certain distance from the primary, in this case the sun, from that distance which we'll call beta, from that point out, there's a doubling pattern that develops, and that doubling pattern is uncannily like the doubling pattern of musical notes. Now, this is not actual music. It is metaphorical music—or statistical music, let's put it that way. The distances are the same as the distances of musical intervals. When you think of what waves are, they are areas of high pressure, they are areas of low pressure—peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs. And it appears as though the peaks of the waves seem to be places where planets and moons don't seem to gather, and that the valleys, on the contrary, are the places where they do seem to gather. That's very exciting. It leads to the question: If they are waves, what are they waves in? What is flowing? And then you get into things like dark matter, dark energy, all sorts of things that might be possible.
It could be waves in time and space, or it could be waves of dark matter...
Murch is very, very careful. He's not a kook. He is careful to a fault. Very early on, he talks about this wonderful word called "apophenia," which is the tendency of human beings to see patterns where there are no patterns. [[He is always saying: "Maybe this is what I'm doing here, maybe that's just what's happening. But having said that, something else might be happening, and at least it should be looked at. I would love to find an astrophysicist who would join me to do a statistical analysis..." and so forth.]] As for the question of what might be happening: Dark matter is dark not because it's dark (as in dark and light) but because it hasn't been located. It is theoretically necessary, but no one has seen it. It's conceivable, and again he's just completely out on a limb here, but for example it's conceivable that over billions and billions of years, these tiny, tiny, infinitesimal particles in their mass fall into these kinds of waves patterns, and that in turn the planets and the sun and the moons all fall into the pattern almost like a roulette wheel.
The book is largely about the disparity between the experts and the know-nothings.
Or phrased differently: Who gets to say what is worth talking about? It's very hard to get anyone to talk to you if you're not a professional astrophysicist, and there is this incredibly mandarin language that astrophysicists use at this point, and they are extremely armored against anybody who's not an astrophysicist...
I love that brief sample of their jargon you publish.
And by the way, it's not jargon, it's incredibly powerful, it's extraordinary—it does allow us to use iPhones and have GPS and all that. [[But anyway, the second part of the book becomes an investigation of the sociology of science. And in fairness, there are all kinds of reasons [astrophysicists might not want to meet with Murch]. These people get hit by kooks all the time. But Walter]] Murch is every bit as accomplished an acoustician as they are astrophysicists, and he's bringing a different metaphor that they haven't used, oddly enough a metaphor that was used in the 16th century, the metaphor of the Music of the Spheres. And a lot of science is figuring out what the right metaphor is. So anyway, it becomes an exploration—not in any way an attack on science—but just an exploration of how hard it is for these two worlds to talk to each other.
And you run back and forth between them. One of the things that's great about the book is that you model for the reader how thinking works.
It's interesting you would say that. When I teach, I have a motto, which is: "Receive them ignorant, dispatch them confused." And one of the things that happens in the second part of the book, a wave pattern starts to develop: On one page you're believing Murch, and then on the next page someone says something totally devastating about him and then you say he must be wrong, and then he has very good answers and you think, oh, maybe he's right—and you see this wave pattern developing. It is complicated getting to figure out who gets to say what.
Everyone's talking about "fake news." What do you say when people say Murch is "fake science"?
That's interesting—I certainly wasn't expecting Donald Trump to win. I've been hanging out with Murch for more than 20 years. It's kind of ironic that finally when the book gets published, it gets published at this moment of fake news and people who are climate-change deniers taking over the EPA and all this stuff. Obviously you need to have sober judgment. Murch is careful at all the steps he takes. He is not a climate-change denier. He's not doing this out of ideology. He's doing it out of a highly refined curiosity—and an admission that he may be wrong, which climate-change deniers will not do, and which Trump won't do. You don't have the sense that these people [in Trump's administration] have read a book.