Read Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo Free Online
Book Title: Ratner's Star|
The author of the book: Don DeLillo
Date of issue: July 16th 1992
ISBN 13: 9780099928409
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 389 KB
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Avoiding Cosmic Fake News
Every community of human beings has its own way of thinking about things, its rules for connecting words and experiences. These rules constitute the community’s epistemology. Epistemology determines who to believe, what is valid and true, and ‘what counts’ in the language of the community - astronomy and simulation are ‘in’ among scientists, for example, and astrology and augury are out. To some degree a community’s epistemology depends on its technology - including its language - and the range of what can be detected and named by it. How events are recorded by technology often determines what is considered as a fact, a fiction, a random noise, or nothing at all.
When technology becomes developed enough to be used to investigate both the very small as well as the very large - as in quantum or astrophysics - it divorces human perception from direct contact with events. Our immediate experience is of the technology not events. Epistemology then becomes about the technology as much as the events it records. Can the technology be trusted? Is what we perceive through it real? Could it be that what we experience in the very small and very large is simply ourselves, that the technology is actually a mirror reflecting an image of the people who created it?
The community investigating Ratner’s Star, Field Experiment Number One, resembles that of organisations like the Santa Fe Institute, or the Rand Corporation and other so-called ‘think tanks’ and ‘skunk works’ in which highly educated people of various academic stripes consider issues of deep import. At least they presume the issues addressed are important because their collective epistemology says they are. They have faith in their technology - in the case of Field Experiment Number One, a new type of synthesis-telescopic array and an enormously powerful computer, the Space Brain - to deliver the scientific facts upon which the community can deliberate.
Most members of this community are savants in some abstruse field of inquiry... and they are clearly mad. Some may be genetically deficient and ‘on the spectrum’. Others are suffering from the stress induced by the difficult problems they are asked to address. But mostly they are mad because of the ultimate futility of their work. After all, every problem they solve creates new problems at an exponential rate - an epistemological paradox implying that scientific progress increases uncertainty about the world. It’s enough to drive any serious scientist crazy.
Billy, the fourteen year old protagonist and maths genius, meets community members in a series of down-the-rabbit-hole, Alice in Wonderland encounters while he literally explores the depths of Field Experiment Number One. It is clear that the epistemology of the the place is rather more flexible than that of conventional academia. The staff includes thirty-two Nobel prize-winners in diverse fields. But beyond this are also ‘alternative physicists’, aboriginal dreamers, a name-shaman and the occasional visiting Kabbala-reading rabbi, among others. No member of any of these ‘disciplines’ pays much attention to the epistemological opinions of the others. The result is a sort of liberality of method within a group of decided dogmatists. What constitutes ‘science’ is a matter of formal but unresolved debate within the community. So truth floats like pollen in the wind, fertilising a variety of considered conclusions.
Billy’s job is to make some sense of a message apparently received from a planetary satellite of Ratner’s Star. As a mathematician, Billy could care less about epistemology. He has no interest in how the binary-coded message got to him or what processes intervened between the distant solar system and the gigantic Space Brain maintained by the community. His data is only the readable version of the purported message which has been produced by Space Brain.
All Billy cares about is identifying any pattern contained in the message, its mathematical significance. Whether the numbers it contains have names other than the ones he knows, is an absurd irrelevance; only their general relationship with each other matters. Numbers, he believes, define each other entirely and give each other their unique identities. Their ultimate source and their connections to anything else in the universe is a metaphysical issue outside his area of interest.
Billy is still young enough to learn however. And he does. He hears and remembers the detail of all the advice he receives no matter how trivial or looney. He encounters the full range of scientific, philosophical and religious opinion face to face, as it were, and at its grittiest from very smart people. And some of the grittiest grit is provided by the eponymous Ratner himself who has turned from scientist to mystic during his life-long search for knowledge. His near-death bed testimony, given to the community’s assembled Nobel laureates through Billy’s intermediation, is unambiguous: en-sof, the “G-dash-D” with no name, the origin and end which is beyond language and number, is that for which they all have been looking. No one, including Billy, pays much attention to the old bat.
Billy’s learning appears to inhibit his enthusiasm for the project. He loses interest, gets depressed, sleeps a great deal, thinks about sex in a decidedly adolescent way, and avoids intellectual activity whenever possible. He is maturing. That is, he is going mad as well. But he receives a sort of therapy from an unexpected source, a hack journalist who turns to fiction-writing in order to avoid the “danger of the threat of belief,” a phrase which seems to sum up the whole of DeLillo’s novel. Belief, that is to say fixity of opinion about how words connect to experience, is as much a problem for scientists as it is for religious fanatics. Or, for that matter, as much as it is for an obsessive person who calls her obsession love.
The truth isn’t ‘out there’ as they say in the X Files; it’s not even ‘in here’ as some psychotherapeutic types have it. The truth is something that’s shared. Like all narrative, it’s communal property or it doesn’t exist. And, also like all narrative, it is both eternal as it is passed along, and temporary as it is surpassed by other more pressing or compelling narrative. Truth isn’t static; it moves. It is propelled by literature at every stage of its existence. Reading and writing is therefore an excellent way to say sane, especially if the writing is as elegant and varied as that provided by DeLillo.
Postscript: it seems to me that Ratner’s Star is the fictional equivalent of a decidedly philosophical work: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3.... I think the fiction is far more effective. Another novel with a similar theme by C.S. Forster, written over a century ago: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
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Read information about the authorDon DeLillo is an American author best known for his novels, which paint detailed portraits of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He currently lives outside of New York City.
Among the most influential American writers of the past decades, DeLillo has received, among author awards, a National Book Award (White Noise, 1985), a PEN/Faulkner Award (Mao II, 1991), and an American Book Award (Underworld, 1998).
DeLillo's sixteenth novel, Point Omega, was published in February, 2010.
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