Waves Passing in the Night by Lawrence Weschler
Walter Murch is a dreamer, an insatiable intellectual who looks towards the ends of the universe for continued astonishment and inspiration. His celebrated career in film and sound editing (and his three Academy Awards) can’t contain him: he’s the type of person who would pick up an academic book at random from a bookstore and casually strive towards a professional, working knowledge of its newly-introduced subject. This passion for learning led Murch to astronomy, and he’s discovered something potentially great. With a parallel excitement, Lawrence Weschler examines Murch’s thesis with an open-minded (and mind-expanding) devotion, and shows the challenging academic rigor with which even the most potent of inklings are faced.
Although there are 67 moons of Jupiter, let’s look at the four largest, which were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. In particular, notice the distance of these moons to Jupiter, and consider their spatial ratios to each other. Now, slide over a similarly-scaled map of the planets and the sun, and voila: “the four sets of concentric rings line up almost exactly, one atop the next.”
It’s an undoubtedly exciting synchronicity, but there are a few things to note before calling the Nobel Committee: first, that Murch has stumbled on the same patterning that astronomers Titius and Johann Bode developed in the 18th century. Secondly, that this pattern includes the asteroid Ceres, which arguably has no place in planetary theoretics. Murch himself fudges a few further details: “Let’s just set Neptune aside for a moment,” he suggests at one point after finding the eighth planet difficult to work into his conjectures. “It’s a renegade so we will put it in detention until we can find out why it is behaving badly.”
Murch is aware that Titius and Bode have since been discounted in academia, but he’s also new enough to the field to not really care: he slightly refines their theories and applies their numbers to today’s science. With thanks to the Kepler space telescope, Murch has access to an expanding pool of data, and he notices that “24 out of 38 two-planet systems fit Bode…and 8 out of 11 three-planet systems did so as well.” After all his theorizing, Murch lands on a vague believe about dark matter and waves – that the distance between planets can be calculated into a rhythmic waveform with masses forming around their crests and valleys. In a way, this conclusion is appropriate given Murch’s expertise in the field of sound – another scientific realm about frequencies and waves.
But, can any of this hold water? Murch is well aware that much of his conjecture might be apophenia, which he describes as “the widespread tendency…of human beings to see patterns where the are no patterns.” He can’t really prove anything, but surely there’s something there, right?
Halfway through Waves Passing in the Night, Weschler concludes Murch’s theory and brilliantly shifts his story away from being about a nearly-possible, maybe-crackpot astrophysics theory and turns it into a story about why these kinds of theories never get traction in the realm of science. It’s wonderfully done, and Weschler is a perfect match for this kind storytelling. Despite the first half of Weschler’s story being about Murch’s ideas, it’s also about Weschler’s ear – he’s an exceptional listener and supporter, and it’s clear he believes in Murch as the dreamer that he is. While Murch, like Foucault, “dream[s] of a new age of curiosity,” he’s pushed away repeatedly by academics who think entry to the community of science “be limited to people who have attained ‘mastery of at least one of the crafts of a scientific subfield to the point where you can independently produce work judged by other members to be of high quality.’”
While Murch explains that he is simply “pointing out a statistical pattern, based on a simple formula, that requires…further investigation,” Weschler beautifully illuminates that he’s doing so much more: he’s dreaming, thinking excitedly in mathematical maybes. And although there may be no room for dreamers in the hard-working, proof-proving and disproving realm of scientific revelation, Murch cascades forth, riding the crest of the outsider’s wave.