Dark matters in Latin poetry

Visualizing Dark Matter in the Early Universe, though we can’t really see it.

Today’s TED blog asks “What is dark matter and what does it have to do with stars?” and it is a typically clear review of what we think we know about the dark matter (and also the dark energy) that make up 96% of the universe. We’ve all heard of ‘Physics for Poets‘ as the stereotypical class for the quantitatively challenged, but what about ‘Poetry for Physicists’? Specifically, pre-atomic, pre-industrial poetry. In Latin.

In lines 5-20 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Augustan-era poet says:

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum               5
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan,               10
nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,
nec circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus
ponderibus librata suis, nec bracchia longo
margine terrarum porrexerat Amphitrite;
utque erat et tellus illic et pontus et aer,               15
sic erat instabilis tellus, innabilis unda,
lucis egens aer; nulli sua forma manebat,
obstabatque aliis aliud, quia corpore in uno
frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis,
mollia cum duris, sine pondere, habentia pondus.

The ‘chaos’ of pre-creation, according to Ovid (who wisely says he wasn’t a witness) was a ‘rudis indigestaque moles‘, a ‘rough and unprocessed heap’ (moles is a great word that basically means a ‘bunch of stuff without any shape’. The next sentence is doozily interlocked, a syntactic jumble meant to mimic the discordant nature of early Nature. ‘It was not anything but (nec quicquam nisi) an idle weight (pondus iners) and the inharmonious seeds (discordia semina) of things not well put together (non bene iunctarum…rerum) all stuck together in one place (congestaque eodem)’.

Ovid then tells us about all the familiar things that didn’t exist at this time before time: ‘no bright sun (lumina Titan); no moon (Phoebe); no earth hanging, balanced, in space (circumfuso pendebat in aere tellus ponderibus librata suis); no ocean (Amphitrite)’. In fact, look at the first words in lines 8-12: all are terms of negation. Usually a thrice-wise repetition (anaphora) is sufficient, but that’s not enough for Ovid, who loves to push poetic boundaries (his epic Metamorphoses had 15 books; 3 more than Vergil’s Aeneid).

For Ovid, the most effective way to explain the unexplainable is to describe what it isn’t, and sometimes he needs to invent language to make that happen. In lines 16-17, he tries to relate his listener’s references (Latin poetry was an acoustic experience) to the physics of the pre-formed world: ‘There was unstandable earth (instabilis tellus), unswimmable sea (innabilis unda), and air lacking see-through-ability (lucis egens aer)’. Innabilis is a hapax legomenon, a word Ovid coined for this poem’s purpose. His verbal visualization of substances lacking the very essence of their definition was startling enough to speak to Kant (“pure transcendental conceptions”: Critique of Pure Reason, 26).

Even brilliant physicists struggle to conceptualize what dark matter and dark energy actually are. Dark matter is ‘dark’ because it does not reflect, emit, or absorb electromagnetic signals. Note that the darkness belongs to us. We cannot communicate with dark energy or matter; we postulate their existence because we can feel dark matter via our shared susceptibility to gravity, and because we belong to a universe that is stretching out every more rapidly thanks (we think) to dark energy.

Of course, neither dark matter nor energy may exist. We deduce them to explain why our current models don’t quite add up. So that dark filler is either real (in some form), or it’s the result of how we’ve built our models. There are alternative explanations (such as one by Erik Verlinde that imagines our universe as just a fingertip of reality above the surface of un-space-time–which recalls the benben of Egyptian creation myth or the turtle of Iroquois myth). There are arguments both ways. Goodly disagreement is going on– a healthy thing in science.

Ovid’s anteworld was also anything but peaceful. ‘Nothing was able to hang onto its own shape (nulli sua forma manebat)’, so ‘something was always getting in the way of other things (obstabatque aliis aliud), because in that one entity (quia corpore in uno) cold things were battling with hot things (frigida pugnabant calidis), moist things were fighting with dry things (umentia siccis), soft things with hard things (mollia cum duris) and heavy things struggling with weightless things (sine pondere habentia pondus)’. The parallelism of Ovid’s construction shows the agonizing antagonism of classical elements locked in eternal opposition without even the benefit of motion (remember pondus iners!). It is the very picture of frustration, and acts as a metaphor for the creative process before inspiration descends upon the artist.

The poetic tension gets resolved, of course, by force of a spark, managed naturally or supernaturally (Ovid offers both options). All the stuff of the material world comes into being and into order–including gods and eventually humans–and unlocked from their pre-ieval prison they soon get to fight openly with each other, an ongoing conflict that is the source of all the world’s triumphs, tragedies, and stories.

Boom. Mythology is born.

Now we’re just waiting for more insight from our modern lightning bolt to unveil the Darkness in the Universe.

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