With a healthy turnout at the Mayfair Theatre, the well-loved CBC personality Shelagh Rogers wasted no time introducing Northwords , a film that was clearly a labor of love for her and her team. The lasting effect of the film on Rogers was palpable as she expressed the impetus of the project with great enthusiasm. Her aim had been to pick five Canadian writers to join her on a literary adventure, delving into the remote and starkly beautiful Torngat Mountains National Park in order to evoke inspiration and dialogue with the North.
Northwords did not disappoint. From the drawing of the curtains, to the thunderous applause ending the fifty minute documentary, director Geoff Morrison and cinematographer Stephen Chung invited us on a journey of raw, unmitigated beauty that stirred something in everyone present.
The film documents the five writers’ process of working through their own distinct responses to what seems like a completely foreign land and way of living. The viewer observes each of them arrive at a deep respect and admiration for the people of the land and their relationship with it, cultivating in them, as well as the viewer, a small whisper for a release from cell phones and asphalt. You can sense something coming alive in each of them as their journey goes on.
Morrison and Chung’s eye for the inescapably harsh beauty of the terrain draws the viewer into a world that is only juxtaposed by the warm and intimate relationships of the Inuit people that co-manage the land in partnership with Parks Canada. The historical and cultural relationship the Inuit have with the land is humbling and often a point of pause and reflection for the group of five writers.
Once the film was finished, some of the writers that made the journey with Rogers took questions. The theme of relationship weaved throughout much of the discussion: the relationships in the film between the five writers, the crew, the hospitable Inuit who welcomed everyone into their home and the clear relationship with the land that all experienced.
Northwords succeeds at showing us a part of Canada that too few of us have ever experienced, as well as a people and way of life that we often too easily dismiss. Rogers and Morrison sound the clarion call to engage and step outside of ourselves. They do so with a grace and sincerity that pays respect to the land and its people.
The “E” in Ivan E. Coyote stands for Elizabeth. For those unfamiliar with the author, she looks and sounds like a man – specifically, a homey, appealing, charismatic man with a nifty retro hair cut. Like a northern Stuart MacLean. The “E” is an insider nod to her unclear gender identity – born a girl, she presents as a man and has spent her professional life exploring gender identity and sexuality through story-telling, writing, and music.
If one were to judge by appearances (which obviously Coyote might advise against) the jam-packed crowd at Knox Presbyterian for the 8:30 Saturday night Northern Scene event was composed of more than one Coyote fan. Festival volunteers hastily scrawled name after name onto the wait list for the sold-out night, and the room had a young, buzzy energy.
When Tagralik Partridge from Kujuak, Nunavik, took the stage after Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld’s ebullient introduction of both northern stars, she focused the audience on her particular story of identity in seven words.
“I don’t know what to tell you” she said slowly in a velvety, just-swallowed-molasses voice. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know what she was having difficulty telling us. “We were picking berries,” she continued, as if she had just thought of a story, the perfect parable to inform this particular moment. Van Oldenbarneveld has a snappy, knife-edge voice, perfect for morning news, and I could feel my heartbeat slowing as Partridge opened with a melodic piece on life on the tundra, hunting camps, blackflies, and quiet moments with friends.
Partridge has lived in Montreal for over a decade, so her next story (which won first place in the Quebec writing competition) brought us back to the city, with a mournful but cleanly-told story of a double heart-break: her heartbreak at losing her lover to his own heartbreak at leaving his land and family. “Living in the South is like holding your breath underwater for a long time. You get good at it if you want to survive.”
Ivan E. Coyote’s stories were energetic and rhythmic tales of family and small-town community, punch-line morals falling over each other as the characters vied for attention. The crowd met grandma matriarchs and teenage moms, taciturn uncles and wise mothers, and laughed almost constantly with easy recognition. Even as she related questioning her family about whether they knew she had “caught the gay early on,” her own gender identity was just one among many.
During the question period after the talk, Coyote noted that when she performs she always comes away with notes in the margins of her text - that she gains writing inspiration from how her spoken word impacts the audience. Like here, she said, pulling out her piece of paper – “this one says, ‘nipple clamps and potholders’”. Then: “Oh no, wait – that’s a packing list for moving.”
I reflected that Coyote’s hominess is, in a way, the most subversive thing about her.
Both Partridge and Coyote avoid politicizing their art. When asked about the political import of her work, Partridge noted that “wherever you stand in society is political. If you see something from that place, it’s on you to say something.” Coyote refuses to identify herself specifically as a man or a woman, noting that she only identifies herself as a “she” to the media to avoid a conversation on “what my genitals look like” in favour of focussing on her body of work. “I’m just trying to tell my truth” she noted.
With these artists at the mic, the telling of personal truths was deeply entertaining and profoundly meaningful. The noise of the crowd afterwards, hanging out to get books signed and to chat with Partridge and Coyote, certainly indicated the event was a roaring success
Everyone who came to the House of Anansi Press Poetry Bash on Saturday night was treated to wine, cheese, and excellent Canadian poetry. Anyone who came ignorant of the three authors, Sara Peters, Adam Dickenson and Michael Crummey, left as fans. Those that did know them were just as appreciative. All three poets demonstrated a mastery of language and form that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating. Each poet was sharing work from recent collections published by House of Anansi.
Sarah Peters opened the evening. She was reading from 1996, her first published collection. Her use of language to explore memory and personal history (both invented and real) is like a scalpel in its precision. She dissects events, revealing their raw beating hearts. One of the poems she read, “Cruelty”, was inspired by her cousin operating on a gopher with a serrated tin-can lid. While the image is quite unsettling, she uses this unbalanced state of the reader to reflect on the cruelty many children exhibit, and how they grow up to use these lessons learned from their childhood in their adult lives. Her poem, “Your Life as Lucy Maude Montgomery”, was just as sharp. This poem was inspired by a quote from Montgomery: “I am very careful to be shallow and conventional where depth and originality are wasted.” When Peters read the line “She places her knife on the thinnest skin you own”, I heard a person gasp at the imagery. Peters read six poems from 1996, and each was of equal quality and potency.
Adam Dickenson was the second poet to read. His book, The Polymers, is a concept album of sorts having been envisioned as a book project from the beginning. Dickenson took the concept of polymers, “molecules composed of numerous repeating parts”, and wanted to perform a scientific analysis of cultural polymers like memes, line-ups, financial credit, etc. Much of Dickenson’s work in the past has explored science and technology as a metaphor for culture, and this is a continuation of that theme. Dickenson read “Hearsay”, which envisioned an imaginary parking lot with cars from every one of the 50 states – the poem contains the slogan from each of the fifty different state plates. This was well received by the audience for both the wit, and the craft to accomplish such a task. Dickenson was a great presenter, and he explained the origins of his works well which helped with appreciating them more deeply.
The final poet showcased was Michael Crummey. A poet for 30 years, his experience was on display through his sparse use of language while simultaneously revealing so much. He was sharing work from his recent collection Under the Keel. The first poem he shared, “Watermark” was inspired out of a project where he was given access to the archives at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s Newfoundland. One photo in particular, of a minister presiding over a full-immersion baptism in the Atlantic inspired this poem: “If they want comfort, let them join the Sally Ann.” … “I’ve been sove three times now/ Please God this one will take.” Crummey shared his poem “The Kids are Alright” that has clearly come from his experience as a parent; “The kids are alright but you’ll never forgive them for making you feel so human.” Crummey’s final poem of the night was “Something New”. It’s a poem dealing with his father dying of cancer, and is at the same time a love poem. The narrative examines the love his mother showed for her dying husband which the narrator doesn’t comprehend, yet is beginning to understand what it will take to become that kind of person and promising that to his wife. It has that existential-love-song feel to it; raw, honest, but hopeful.
The discussion after the readings was well moderated, with good questions asked to the authors and great discussion. Clearly a lot of people enjoyed the poems on display, as there was a significant line-up after the event to buy the works from these three poets. These are three books I look forward to reading. Overall, the night was a successful showcase of poetry by House of Anansi, and a reminder of the quality of literature they continue to publish.
This intimate gathering took place while the sun was beaming a narrow spot light through the small basement window of the Manx Pub, a favorite, basement watering hole in downtown Ottawa. Speaking to a full house seated in red upholstered chairs and booths, Elizabeth Mariatti, author of How to Get Along with Women , spoke first.
The petite woman with wavy brown hair stood beside the microphone and read with confidence and wit while describing a Jewish neighbourhood and her first encounter with Asher, an 11 year-old boy. Filled with observations on politics and internal prejudices the writer pokes with affection and detachment at the flippant comments of her characters asking us to look beyond what we see.
Dobozy then followed Mariatti with his graphic description of blood, guts and suffering when the Red Army entered Budapest during the Second World War in December 1944. In the excerpt from his book, Seige 13 , Dobozy read about the brutal death of animals, raging fires and the internal agony and perished hope of people caught in the destruction, “As if it was possible to stop thinking from thinking too much and exploding thought,” and “In myths, people turn into flowers, horses and animals, but now, we don’t transform.” While provoking the audience to feel, hear, smell and taste the brutality and loss, Dobozy asks us to examine the ugly blemish of human nature: that like other animals, we have taken pleasure in inflicting pain. “A cat will play with its prey all for the pleasure,” he reads and then closes his book. The affected audience applauded both authors for their unique insights and talent.
Entering the side entrance of the Knox Presbyterian church I see what looks like over 100 people seated in perfect rows facing a large stage. The stage has four empty red chairs facing outwards, a large blue screen in the background and a pale wood podium on the right, where a woman with a long shock of red hair reads her work, “I learned that I’ll get my head stuck under the steering wheel for a blow job.” And then I quietly find an empty seat in the audience while everyone is still being transported by the reader and I hear her again, “No kissing, no real names, no playing house. I hold my breath and stare at the wall until he’s finished.” And it’s all too clear what she’s describing.
Amber Dawn is reading from her gritty and powerful memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life . It’s a frank, painful and sometimes funny account of a woman’s life as a hustler on the streets of Vancouver: what it did to her and how she was saved by poetry. After her compelling read, Ms. Dawn is followed by Miriam Katin, the author of a debut graphic novel called, We Are On Our Own , who reveals herself as a short woman with salt and pepper hair pulled neatly into a bun in the back of her head. She’s wearing a plain black jacket and large round eye glasses. While standing at the podium, the screen beside her projects an image of a two or three-year-old girl who is standing next to a home with a short iron railing in front of her while Ms. Katin tells us about her life with a strong Hungarian accent, “The shadow of that iron railing cast a shadow on my body and I always thought of it as an omen of things to come.” She laments over the hardships during the Second World War and the passing of time, while stunning drawings of this woman in front of us are depicted with many different prompts and people in movement, torment and toil on the screen beside her. Then she calls out in exasperation, “I thought it was over and then my son announced that he wanted to live in Germany.” But, she admitts, there was one consolation, “Dry martinis were my nice personal savior,” and the audience bellows out loud as she ends her reading and sits down.
In stark contrast to Ms. Katin’s stature, she is replaced at the podium by the much taller, Iain Reid, writer of the The Truth About Luck , a memoir on a birthday gift-road trip to Kingston, Ontario with his 92 year-old grandmother. Dressed in a brown sweater and a blue shirt and tie, the stoic balding figure with glasses begins to read a comical and touching tale about how his brother Jimmy and he, sat in the Manx Pub in Ottawa, Ontario, and through a process of elimination, conspired to take his grandmother to Kingston for her birthday and have her pay for it. The audience exploded with laughter at the hilarious banter of these dueling brothers. The evening ended with the host and three writers sitting in the red chairs and responding to audience questions where even deeper truths were revealed about things like their first writing experiences, how they wrote about real people in their lives and what it takes to write about their own lives, “It is an act of bravery” called out Amber Dawn. “We just hope that people appreciate it. I get thanks all of the time and it gives me courage.”
I slipped into my seat just as John Metcalf was being introduced as the host for the noon hour discussion. I missed a minute or two of the introduction but heard Mr. Metcalfe described as accomplished, witty and irascible. As the session unfolded, it was apparent that what I did hear summed it up very nicely. Metcalfe is well known in Canadian literature as an educator, editor and writer He told the audience, tongue in cheek, the short story has been described as “admirable and virtuous but not quite grown up - like the NDP.” Malcolm Bradbury, English author and academic, defined the short story as a major form of literary expression. Metcalf took charge of the conversation and treated those gathered to a conversation delving into the thought process of two accomplished short story authors.
Nancy Jo Cullen, author of Canary and Tamas Dobozy author of Siege 13 were asked about landscapes they chose for their short stories. Cullen writes from an urban landscape. She said she is “interested in bad decisions” that people make and she likes “the problems of recovery.” Dobozy said he uses “the intellectual to sequence the plot” and he tries to base the story in emotion.
The authors were asked to describe where their stories come from and how they go about beginning their stories. The first paragraph is the essential part of the story according to Cullen. There is a dominant emotion she tries to capture from the onset. For Dobozy the title or first sentence form the basis from which the rest of the story grows. He said there is something simultaneous that happens in reading a short story; it happens all at once in a readers mind.
The authors discussed the challenges of writing a short story. Metcalfe believes endings are the most difficult. Cullen looks for a “shift at the end” where she wants the characters to live on in the readers mind. Dobozy has thrown out stories as he couldn’t end them. He has also ended stories and only then does he realize what the story is about.
As the conversation progressed Metcalf observed how easily all three of them had been referencing others. He believes all successful short story writers have a personal library in their heads, of other authors, stories and excerpts they draw upon as they go about their craft.
The authors were asked how they know, at the onset, that something will be a short story and not a novella or a novel. Cullen responded this was not an issue as she constrains herself to the length of a short story. Dobozy voiced a similar response as he said there is a conscience intention when you sit down.
Each of the authors read an excerpt from their latest book. Cullen read from the story Valerie’s Bush and Dobozy read from The Atlas of B. Görbe.
It’s a rare treat and a privilege to hear three accomplished authors speak openly about their thought processes, the inspiration for their stories and the discipline they employ as they go about their craft. During the discussion Dobozy made reference to a saying that in writing beginnings are easy, middles are challenging and endings are impossible. The noon hour conversation was insightful and interesting at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.
Every day, as I settle into my car, put on my seat belt, adjust the mirrors my hand naturally finds its way to the radio dial where the soothing voices of the CBC await.
All in a Day is my “relax after class” show. On air from 3-6 every week day, the host Alan Neal has a way about his voice, that draws the listener in turning any topic into one of interest. The moment I saw Neal’s name on the Writer’s Fest Spring line up, I knew I had to attend.
The Knox Presbyterian Church was brimming with people and chatter as I took my seat, pen and notebook in hand. As Neal took the stage, he introduced the topic of the evening -“Random Play.” Prior to the event, Neal played his iPod on “random” and proceeded to select the first 10 songs played. Neal then attempted to find out every last detail about each of these songs- from who composed them, to what inspired them, to the meaning of the lyrics that define them. These 10 songs came from an array of artists, both local and international, from the modern day to eras past, allowing for an eclectic mix of musical tastes, themes and contexts. Neal used his creative insights to explain each song, going so far as to reach out to the widows of the composers, thus imbuing each song with meaning beyond its basic value. Following his description and individual interpretation and research conducted for each song, the song would then be performed by either the artists themselves or the by a local artist on behalf of an artist passed or too distant to join us for the evening.
Proceeding in “coffee house style,” artists took the stage to perform the songs previously described by Neal. The local artists were quite impressive, interacting with the audience and playing along with Neal’s casual approach to the evening. From Halifax’s Jenn Grant, to Ottawa based Kelly Lee Evans – the music was beautiful and intriguing. For example, for one of Jenn Grant’s songs about “being born in a lion’s mouth,” Neal sought the advice of professors of mythology, which of course added humour and insight to the lyrics themselves. While each songs’ description maintained its own quirks, and garnered its own “ah-ha” moments and giggles from the audience, there is one interpretation presented by Neal that I would like to focus on.
Like many of the previous songs of the evening, the fifth song was one that I had never heard before. Titled “Captain Finch,” it was written by Ottawa singer-song writer Jim Bryson in 2003. In and amongst the witty and often times funny explanations of the 10 songs selected and their meanings, it was Neal’s description of his journey to find meaning in the song that was most powerful.
After being unsuccessful in his attempt at finding a Captain Finch in the Canadian Armed Forces, Neal moved his search south to our US neighbor, where he discovered a “real, live” Captain Finch with whom he shared Bryson’s song.
As a Navy Chaplain for the United States Army, Captain Finch approached the song from a different angle than Jim Bryson could ever have fathomed.
On 9/11 Captain Finch had been called to Manhattan to provide people with comfort on that tragic and traumatic day. When listening to lyrics of Bryson’s song, which read “Captain Finch, would find a friend?,” the real Captain Finch was reminded of that very day. In his recorded interview with Neal, Captain Finch recalled that on 9/11, in the midst of the horror, he was “simply there to be a friend,” to those whose friends and family were never found.
Bryson was astounded to hear Captain Finch’s interpretation of his words, and was moved. Bryson explained to the audience that he wrote the lyrics when his friend were going away to school – a completely different concept from the one that Captain Finch had interpreted. This difference in the interpretation of the song provided by Neal through his research and the “expert advice” he garnered, and that of the song’s original composer is embodied by the story of Captain Finch. This discrepancy between interpretations, as they are influenced by life experience was, to my mind, the most fascinating component of the evening. How a song can take on a different meaning than what was intended by the composer, is just one of the many magical components of music.
As a fellow graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), I would be remiss to mention the performance by Andy Conte and Ethan Kraus, fellow NPSIANs who took one line from each of the 10 songs selected and created a comprehensive song. As the winners of the song competition, they were granted the opportunity to perform live. Their song was fun, and had the audience clapping! While it was a tad bit lengthy, overall Neal’s interpretation of song and accompanying case of performers, made for a light, fun and enjoyable evening.
Photo credit: Christie Esau
Give me anything relating to community, grassroots movements, or social justice, and I’m all in. And, judging by the attendance at this afternoon’s talk with Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, it seems like plenty of other attendees were with me too.
The recent book collaboration by Saul and Curtis—the subtitle of which I will skip repeating, considering the authors did the same—chronicles the story of, in short, moving from transactions to transformation. The Stop , a small food bank that Nick Saul began working at in 1998 on Davenport Road in Toronto, has now blossomed into a well-staffed organization with a $4.5 million dollar annual budget. As host Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen pointed out, the accomplishments of The Stop are far too numerous to list.
The Stop is now a community food centre rather than a food bank. Saul and Curtis describe The Stop's model as one which embraces dignity, hope and humanity. They also jokingly refer to it as a family business, an accurate statement based on their partnership, and Curtis’ early (and volunteer) communications work for the organization.
One of the resounding themes of Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’ talk today—and, of course, in the work they do on the ground—is that it is essential to remove the ever-common ‘us versus them’ divide. As Saul and Curtis can attest from their early days involved with The Stop, a food bank is just a band-aid; a transaction in which one person gives and another receives. They believe that people are more than just consumers of food.
There are three million people in Canada who are food insecure, which is the equivalent of Saskatchewan’s population three times over. For the number buffs out there, that’s almost nine percent of our entire population as a country. That is, clearly, far too many people without adequate and appropriate food.
I admit that I just picked up my copy of Saul and Curtis’ book, but I can predict that it will be a delightful read. Today’s talk emphasized the importance and power of storytelling, and—especially from Curtis’ point of view—reclaiming social history. Thus, Saul and Curtis’ book not only tells rarely heard stories, but moreover empowers the story tellers. As Nick Saul pointed out, stories are not easily dismissed, whereas ideas often are.
From days of the early 1980s at St. Stephen-of-the-Fields, to the mid-1990s at the Davenport location, to the current national expansion work via Community Food Centres Canada, The Stop has made a lot of progress over the years. One highlight Saul and Curtis discussed is The Stop’s somewhat recent project The Green Barn. Located in an old TTC maintenance barn, The Green Barn provides educational centres, sheltered gardens, greenhouses and kitchens. Saul and Curtis remarked that this particular project is a great avenue to bridge gaps; because relationships built at The Green Barn—which is located in a more middle class and thus economically stable area than the Davenport location—can lead to creative solutions to hunger.
As Saul reminded, you have to create spaces for the future you want to see. Clearly, Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis are working tirelessly for the future they want; one centered around maintaining dignity for all people while ensuring they have access to good healthy food and a safe community.
John Elder Robison has Asperger’s. So does his son, Cubby. Robison – who has authored two books on how he turned his “disorder” (read: difference) into a pillar of strength – was determined that his own son would grow up with a positive self-concept and that he never would be forced to forfeit his special traits and curiosities. Robison’s new book, Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, is not just another guidebook for parents of children with special needs. There’s a whole lot of father-son mischief too. And at Saturday’s Writersfest event, there was also a little reminiscing about Robison’s days on the road with KISS and other legendary bands.
Robison’s talk focused mostly on the mischief. Stories about Cubby finding his way into nuclear plants and naval ship control rooms had the audience in stitches – “My son Cubby is a shareholder. He would like a tour, please and thanks.” The story about fixing and flaunting Chairman Mao’s last Mercedes limo was also priceless.
There were discussions aplenty about what must be done to improve life and career outcomes for those on the autism spectrum. There were many parents of autistic children in the audience, and several rose during the question period to thank Robison for giving them hope.
Robison’s main point: like most young people, those ‘on the spectrum’ are seeking a solid education, a rewarding career with the possibility for advancement, and fulfilling relationships. For Robison, this last one – “I went and got me a wife” – is the most important. His tone is characteristic of many people with Asperger’s I have encountered – straightforward without a hint of sarcasm: “getting a girlfriend is more important than getting a job.” The theory is quite simple: become “choose-able” to potential romantic partners. Parents and peers can provide kids like Cubby a great deal of useful practical advice for becoming “choose-able” [and certainly one does not need to be on the spectrum to benefit from social skills coaching!]. Instead of saying, “you’re autistic so it’s expected that you’ll have no friends,” we can say, “try doing X instead of Y, and folks on the playground won’t make fun of you.” It’s about trial and error, and a healthy dose of patience and creativity.
But before all that can happen, society must recognize the value and worth of autistic individuals’ skills and talents. It is interesting to note that parents in the audience asked questions about how to make their kid “choose-able” for [read: successful at conforming to] the job market. Yet, Robison placed primary emphasis on interpersonal relationships and dating. This reminded me of a recent class with Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz at the University of Ottawa, wherein we discussed how too often clinicians fail to consider how one’s condition/difference/delays/disability will impact relationships and sexuality.
More than once did Robison declare, “Being autistic saved me.” How so? At one level, being autistic “protected” him from being affected by abuse and trauma – obliviousness as a coping mechanism. But more importantly, his autism leads him to think differently than others, to solve problems with cognitive patterns unique to him – and all of this boded well for his career as an electronics and music wiz, author, and father. As he put it, “each of us must find what is special about us.” And parents, teachers, youth workers and the like can help in this process by giving autistic kids a range of experiences so they can assess their strengths and interests. This means we need a shift from obsessive pathologizing to a focus on exposing autistic youth to the possibilities that await them.
Whereas today’s youth are ascribed a psychopathological label early on, Robison was diagnosed at age 40. We don’t yet know the effects of living with such a label throughout one’s formative years, but we’re about to find out. As a generation of autistic youth enter early adulthood and seek their first jobs and serious relationships, now is the time for the sort of productive, mature, communal, yet amicable discussion proposed in Raising Cubby. Robison’s talk laid the groundwork for significant progress, and it’s no surprise he has been advising top research institutions and government agencies on better conceptualizing and serving those on the spectrum. I feel privileged to benefit from his lucid recommendations and contagious optimism, as well.
Unsurprisingly, many aspiring time travellers arrived in time to listen to Chris Impey speak on Saturday. Impey was presenting material from his recent book on cosmology, How it Began: A Time Traveler’s Guide to the Universe . I was impressed at the diversity of the audience, all interested in learning more about the origins and nature of the universe. Impey’s presentation was essentially Cosmology 101, informing us of the current scientific understanding of the universe.
Impey divided his presentation into three major sections: the history of cosmology, the Big Bang, and current research and theories on ideas as diverse as String Theory, the Multiverse, and Brane Theory (M-Theory). The presentation was well polished, and the visuals were excellent. Many of his slides used vintage comics to illustrate his talking points, images were shown of the farthest reaches of visible space, and several videos added to his message.
In his presentation on the History of Cosmology, he explained the evolution of humanity’s attempt to answer the two questions on the nature of the universe: does the universe have a physical boundary, and does it have a temporal beginning and ending.
He shared the impact of Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Edwin Hubble, and Albert Einstein on our attempts to answer those two questions. One of his main points shared was that by looking farther out into the universe, we also have the advantage of actually looking back in time. Light that has travelled farther is much older, so if we look at light from a star that’s one million light years away, we’re looking at the universe as it was one million years ago. The most advanced telescopes we have right now are able to look out over 13 billion light-years, so we are able to observe closer and closer to the origins of the universe which is understood to be 13.8 Billion years old. We’re getting closer and closer to actually observing conditions at the beginning of the universe, as much as visible light will ever be able to show anyway.
Impey’s next topic was the Big Bang. It was at this point I started to get lost in the presentation. I understood the surface points he was making--such that the name, “Big Bang” implies an explosion, which is incorrect as there was never an “explosion”. Impey did expand that this theory is scientifically the best understanding we have of the origins of the universe and it has been proven through multiple sources of experimentation.
But, as Impey began to explain how cosmic microwave radiation was evidence of the Big Bang, I started to struggle. By the time Impey was discussing String Theory and the Multiverse, I was completely lost. Perhaps if I had read How it Began before the talk, I would have been able to follow, but it was clear my Engineering education and my love of Star Trek didn’t help me comprehend the remainder of the presentation. This isn’t to say the talk was bad – quite the contrary, Impey is a very talented communicator, there was just too much information being communicated in a short time. Much of the information took me a while to understand, so while I was chewing on one idea, he moved on and left me behind. I felt like I was back in an undergraduate class frantically taking down notes in the hope they would make sense later when I read the textbook.
Those that had read Impey’s work clearly got more out of this presentation than others, as I wasn’t the only one who felt intimidated. I overheard one conversation afterwards, where the person said that they “wished they were smarter so they could have understood.”
Despite my struggle to follow, I really enjoyed the presentation. Impey at one point shared that it is the job of science to explore the border between what we know and what we do not understand. I felt that this talk was a great presentation of that boundary with regards to the nature of the universe. I think it will be really enjoyable to read Impey’s books, How it Began and How it Ends . Impey concluded his presentation with the point that despite all the unknowns that remain, despite the puzzle pieces that have yet to be placed in our understanding, cosmology is keeping both the small (quarks) and the large (the cosmos) elements in view. This is a difficult balancing act to achieve, but it is critical if we are to progress further in our understanding of our universe.