As a young children on camping trips, we’d sing a marvelously challenging tongue-twister of a tune titled, “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” It began, “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea. There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea. There’s a hole. There’s a hole. There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” And in that hole we’d place smaller and smaller objects until someone tripped-up on the lyrics. I remember once arriving at something like, “There’s a fleck on the speck on the vein on the gnat on the wing on the flea on the wart on the frog on the branch on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea.” It could’ve gone on forever really…as long as one could think of something smaller than the previous thing and then hold it together through the verse.
As a child, this kind of thing was wonderfully fun.
As a truth-seeking adult, often too much in my own head (like right now), facing fairly frequent existential crises (like yesterday), there is a disconcerting, sometimes terrifying depth to the construct on which this song is founded.
It is a construct of universal scale, either inconceivably massive or imperceptibly miniscule, as processed in one fragile, just-complex-enough-to-know-what-it-can’t-know-yet-simple-enough-to-keep-trying human brain.
I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh when I emotionally collided with this construct for the first time. The course was Anatomy and Physiology of Speech. The topic was neurology. I’d never taken a deep, meta-cognitive contemplation about my brain…not until this class and the texts, readings, and discussions therein. Chris Moore was the professor, and I admired him. He was obviously smart, but he also was loose, witty, warm, and approachable. He seemed to really care about his professional endeavors, the subject matter, and his responsibilities as a teacher/mentor to aspiring professionals. Aspiring adults. He thought bigger than the topic, than the field…and his energy increased when any of us thought bigger than the specific information in front of our eyes. When we weren’t obsessed with, “Is that gonna be on the test?”
I really got into the brain (…and boy was it messy [bah-dum-dum-PSHT!]…). In class one day I looked down at my hand, paused, and then I lifted my index finger nearly imperceptibly. And…BAM! I was overcome with something that now reminds me of a passage from Douglas Adams’, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” Here I’ll quote the text, and the introduction of the Total Perspective Vortex:
“The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.
Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.
And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”
I was hit, in that moment, having simply (yet…not simply) moved my finger, with a realization that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. And thank goodness, because perhaps the shock of such a thing would have annihilated MY brain.
I raised my hand.
Now, what followed out of my mouth likely had NOTHING to do with what Dr. Moore was explaining. Also, considering that I was among tens of other undergrads, entirely disinterested in what was about to come out of my head, I should have shut my trap, made a note, and caught Moore after class. That’s not what I did.
“Greg?! Do you have a question.”
“I do. So, if I move my finger, we can trace that physical movement backwards. Right?”
“We could trace it back through the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system. We could theoretically trace it back to the very first neuro-electro-chemical change.”
“So…what makes THAT change happen?”
Moore has a smirk on his face. Most everyone else is either rolling their eyes or opening them from the light nap they’d been taken. Silence will always wake you from such in-class eye-resting endeavors.
“Well…we could talk about this over coffee later.”
(A smattering of hearty laughter…from those who were attending.)
I smiled, tucked my emotional tail between my legs, and shut my fucking mouth. This is not a question a scientist can answer…not with any confidence.
You see, we can talk about smaller and smaller things on smaller and smaller things. To a point. And then it all disperses in theoretical context-dependent particle/wave/energy (non)things. And we can contemplate larger and more plentiful things until infinity. At which point we enter the territory of malaria dreams. (Not fun.)
What is the smallest knowable thing made of?
What begets that first neuro-electro-chemical change that precipitates in a finger twitch? Or the formulation of the theory of relativity?
How many universes are there, and when, if at all, did they wink into existence?
Total perspective vortex.
I would like to think that I, like Zaphod Beeblebrux, could not only survive the experience but revel in it. Have my fairy cake and eat it too. (You might be thinking that I’ve consumed mass quantities of cannabis-laden fairy cake to have arrived at this point. You’d be wrong…on this occasion.)
But I don’t know.
There’s a persistent grain of doubt on anything in that hole in the bottom of my consciousness.
So somehow, inexplicably, perhaps inevitably…faith is all I have on which to hang my hat.
A blind leap into that vast, cavernous hole in my consciousness, with a certainty that I will land safely somewhere closer to Truth.
Oh, to have the pure, unfettered, still-developing, open-to-anything, baggage-free brain of little Gregory. That husky, chubby-cheeked, knock-kneed little shit who had the world, and likely a couple of Pop Tarts, at his fingertips. The world where there could be God and gods, and nothing. Myths and magic, and discovery. Mystery and superstition, and revelation. And a vein on a wing on a gnat on a fly on a wart on a frog on a bump on a log in the hole in the bottom of the sea.