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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

NYTimes headline: When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May Be Lurking

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 28, 2009

I was feeling low and out of gas when I saw the above headline in the New York Times online. My hopes were high when I clicked on it. The actual article, about celebrities whose assistants manage their Twitter accounts for them, disappointed me deeply. Here’s how I wish the article had read.

When Stars Twitter, a Ghost May be Lurking

Published: March 28, 2009

For centuries, stargazers have been fascinated by the sight of celestial bodies twinkling and sparkling in the night sky. At various points in scientific history, astronomers have attributed the random blinking of stars to weaknesses of human vision or the shivering movements or dimming and brightening of the stars themselves. Since the early 18th Century, however, scientists have agreed that this phenomenon is the result of earthly atmospheric gases momentarily obscuring visibility.

Now one researcher is taking issue with this stance, arguing that a definitive link has been established between the seemingly random blinkings of stars and a complicated communication system, the details of which are still being worked out.

Andreu Matthiessen, a Finnish scientist whose previous research has focused on establishing a link between astrology and string theory, mapping visible stars to projected geographical formations of the European Union, and theorizing about the possibility of building a literal stairway to heaven, has now turned his attention to twinkling stars, formally known as stellar scintillation. Isaac Newton is credited with uncovering the true cause of twinkling stars when he argued that atmospheric turbulence caused the phenomenon. In 1704, Newton wrote:

“If the Theory of making Telescopes could at length be fully brought into Practice, yet there would be certain Bounds beyond which Telescopes could not perform. For the Air through which we look upon the Stars, is in a perpetual Tremor; as may be seen by the tremulous Motion of Shadows cast from high Towers, and by the twinkling of the fix’d Stars.”

Yet Matthiessen, with funding from the International Federation of Astrologo-Astronomers, has spent the last two decades of his career taking issue with this widely accepted analysis. He and forty to fifty graduate students have been tracking scintillation by stationing themselves around the world and keeping at least three pairs of steady eyes on the night sky at all times. Now Matthiessen believes he has uncovered a pattern: One that indicates the stars themselves are attempting to communicate with us via short bursts of information.

“Much like in Twitter,” Matthiessen, 73, said as he printed his most recent data for a reporter. “Information always comes in no more than 150 characters.” (Twitter accounts are limited, in fact, to 140 characters at a time.)

Even Matthiessen admits that the data he has collected so far is largely unintelligible; he has been unable to make sense of the information streams that get sent to him from his worldwide research network. Yet he and his lead researcher, Andrea Figuero, are convinced that once they come upon the right permutation of number-letter decoding system, the reams of research will fall into place as a long communication. Asked to speculate on what the stars may be communicating to us, both Matthiessen and Figuero were eager to volunteer their opinions.

“I don’t believe in God,” said Figuero, an American who abandoned graduate work in astrophysics at MIT in 2003 to work with Matthiessen, “but I believe the planets, the stars, everything that’s out there, makes up a single uniform body with its own level of awareness.”

“It is not what you might imagine,” Matthiessen agreed. “It does not communicate like this God and does not want to.”

It doesn’t want to direct our actions or guide humans? Then why bother trying to communicate?

“It is human, like us,” Matthiessen answered.

“Not human,” Figuero interjected. “But a body of awareness…maybe…. Well, I said I don’t believe in God, but what if God did exist once and the stars are like the ghost of what God was?”

“Like a ghost,” Matthiessen affirmed. “And when we break this code, we will know what this God was saying to his people centuries ago.”

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"The Man in the Attic," by Steven Millhauser

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 17, 2009

At exactly midnight by his strapless watch, Haverstraw puts down his No. 2 hexagonal yellow pencil beside his spiral-bound notebook, which he leaves open on the desk, and leans back in his chair. For a moment he feels dizzy, and grips the edge of the desk; it is hot in the attic room, and the air feels stale and close, despite the twenty-year-old rattling window fan that is supposed to draw the hot air out and somehow leave coolness in its wake. The attic room, lined with bookshelves, is above the second floor of the house, where his mother has her bedroom. Haverstraw’s bedroom is also on the second floor, but he prefers to sleep in the old guestbed in the attic study. The mattress sags, his feet stick over the end, and the room is poorly heated in winter, but Haverstraw does not seek comfort. Haverstraw is thirty-nine years old and lives with his sixty-six-year-old mother. For the last nine years he has been at work on an immense project, an experiment in memory, which will justify him. Tonight the writing has gone well, or at least not badly, though perhaps his ideas have carried him a little astray; he has the sudden sense that the whole project is astray, his whole life astray, but the thought is so terrifying that he quickly suppresses it. He must get out and walk in the night. His waking hours are divided into three segments: from one in the afternoon to six at night he gets through the day, from seven to midnight he writes, and from midnight to five in the morning he gets through the night. He sleeps from five in the morning to one in the afternoon. Dinner with his mother is from six to seven&#8212always. His work will justify him. People will understand. He will be redeemed. Remember old Haverstraw? Guy who lived in the attic? Well! Seems that he. Turns out he. Haverstraw needs to get outside and walk. He turns off the bent-neck standing lamp, pushes back his chair&#8212an old kitchen chair with a pillow on the seat&#8212and stands up, wondering whether his little attacks of dizziness are something he ought to worry about. After all, he’s a man almost forty, a man stuck in a bog. His back hurts. His eyes burn. His life hurts. He will be justified. He picks up his watch without a strap and thrusts it into his pocket. Haverstraw crosses the room, switches off the overhead light, and makes his way through the unfinished part of the attic, filled with the abandoned games of his adolescence, the stuffed animals of his childhood. He never throws anything out. Somewhere in a shoebox are all the little prizes from the cereal boxes of thirty years ago, still in their transparent crinkly plastic wrappers. In a drawer of the old dresser sit piles of old bubblegum cards no one has ever heard of: science-fiction cards, movie-star cards, fire-engine cards. He still has his old patrol-boy badge on its white strap, his old paper targets full of BB holes. He ought to clear out all this junk, but it would be like throwing away his childhood. Haverstraw tiptoes down the wooden steps of the attic and makes his way in the dark along the second-floor hall, past his sleeping mother&#8212he can hear her breathing&#8212and down the carpeted stairs. On the dark landing he passes a black, invisible picture: Hokusai’s Great Wave. In his mind he sees vividly the little yellow boats, the little white heads, the towering waves that frightened him as a child, and far away the wave-like top of Mount Fuji. He continues down the carpeted stairs to the front hall. From a hook on the wobbly clothestree he removes his blue nylon windbreaker. He opens the front door quietly, for his mother is a light sleeper. When he steps outside he sees, high up in the dark blue sky, the big white summer moon. His heart lifts. The night will forgive him.

Excerpted from Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser. Copyright © 1999 by Steven Millhauser. Printed online at

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