Letter to the Future XV - Black Holes & Heroes

"It was a magical time, 
when the universe,
channeled through Hawking, 
paid a visit to Cambridge."

Frank Wilczek, MIT

Dear Future,

It's time we had a talk about heroes.

Sometime about 2001, your uncle Dane and I were in a shitty car, traversing Minnesota Street on the east side of Cannon Falls. He was about to graduate high school. Like all Cannon Falls roads, Minnesota Street is a residential passage, rambler-lined and scattered with acorns and maple leaves in the fall, grey snow in the spring.

We pulled to a stop sign. I remember our pause there. My good friend's house sat off the right cheek of our Nissan, blue and familiar posted there on the corner.

The rest of our conversation has succumbed to memory's loud artifact, but slowing to that stop sign, with intention and aiming for purchase, Dane said to me, "just start remembering things."

It was beautiful. What he meant was everything. Start remembering everything. Get to looking for the edges of what you can know. This knowing is not a passive, receptive endeavor.

It was in those years, on such propulsion, that I encountered Stephen Hawking. Our now-passed knight.

In the '80s, Hawking had described - predicted, really - the radiative nature of black holes.

Lest we be tempted to just move passed that tiny report, let us linger a moment:

Hawking had, in the dark damp of his brain, conceived of the behavior of the universe at the unseen borders of space-time's throat. What's more, he described it to seventh grade me, by way of a book, across two decades. Matter and anti-matter, dancing 'round one another on the rim of man's best conception of oblivion, where, decoupled for only a moment, one dancer in the pair would fall irretrievably into the crushing bend of infinite mass, and the other, alone now, would dance away into space in no ceremony at all, betraying only through a tiny blip on an earth machine, somewhere, the presence of a time-swallowing monster, hidden between the stars.

The knights and paladins stuffed in your castle hero stories, draped in chain mail and lugging steel, are placeholders, not malicious so much as underwhelming. Harder to know, Future, are the forms your heroes will take when they come to meet you.

Sometimes they'll come with knotty guitars or chalked climbing shoes. They will fish your heart with lyric and allusion, they'll have brought you a piece of the ocean they conquered or a tale of the mountains where, in the pine, they took refuge.

They'll build big fires with you or memorize a song you love. Full of bash and reticence, they'll allow you to hear them play their instrument. And from wheelchairs, they'll describe mathematically how burps in the early universe became, for all of us, light and gravity and holes in time. As a matter of course, they'll say nothing of the wheelchairs.

In our accounting of the heroes' place on Earth, we defer mentioning their closeness to beauty. It's for that, I'll beg you to be wary of fairytales. Heroes are not much if not keepers, proselytes, students of beauty.

For the astrophysicists, and heroes of all kinds, let's toast.

May the stars rest you well, Stephen.
- Erik, in the past

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