To come to New York City for the first time armed with a name, a number, an address…but not just any name, number or address. The prospective contact will only count if it also holds the promise of gaining entrée to a world you hope to enter, publishing, say, or the editorial department of a Conde Nast magazine. If you have the name of such a contact in your possession before you climb off the bus or the train you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re already ahead of the game.


Many years ago when I arrived in New York with a couple of suitcases and two hundred dollars in cash  I had the name of just such a contact, a correspondent for a prestigious weekly whom I will call Tessa Vaughan. She had published three well-received books including the biography of a controversial poet. She was married to a noted professor and lived in a vast apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a commanding view of Central Park.


My father had known her father in the city where we’d both been raised. That was our only link. Over the phone Tessa was surprisingly receptive and proposed that we get together the following week. At the time I’d been in the city for only a couple of months and had just found an apartment on West 95th Street and Amsterdam. My landlord, an elderly Romanian émigré, rented it to me for $140 per month and another $5 for utilities. This was in an era when it was possible to live, though by no means prosper, on $10,000 a year. The apartment left much to be desired. In the winter frigid air seeped in, rendering the lone radiator utterly ineffectual; in the summer, in the absence of an air conditioner, the heat turned the air into glue and made sleep impossible. The apartment overlooked the world’s ugliest playground which consisted of swings and jungle Jims. There was no grass, just asphalt and cement. This playground was meant for children living in a housing project across the way, but they never seemed to use it. From time to time, though, gangs of bored teenagers would pass through the playground and if the impulse seized them, they’d pick up some stones and fling them at my window. The window was high enough up to challenge them while sufficiently within range to offer a reasonable chance of hitting it. They succeed three times, sending shards of glass flying in all directions. Luckily, the only injury was to the window. I moved out after a year. A friend was vacating his small apartment in The Village and I took over the lease.


Living in The Village had been my dream for years. It was the destination to which writers had gravitated for years – Edith Wharton, Henry James, Malcolm Cowley, Allen Ginsburg, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millet, Patricia Highsmith. But that was when writers like artists and musicians could afford The Village. They can’t anymore.  But this was the Seventies – “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” days – when you a good, tasty lunch at a reputable midtown restaurant might run you seven or eight dollars. Forty dollars could go a long way unless someone mugged you before you spent it. There was a lot of that in those days, too.


But I was under the thrall of the romantic illusion. The artist in the garret is one of those enduring myths that continue to exert a perverse hold on the imagination. In the abstract, of course, the idea of a struggling artist is one thing; the trouble starts when you actually have to live like one. At first, because you believe that you are not doomed to spend the rest of your time in such reduced circumstances – that this is only a rite of passage before you achieve your ambition -- the difficulties and privation can be borne tolerably well. If you’re young and you have friends to call on if you need to unburden your soul – and those friends are pretty much in the same boat you are – the inconvenience can even seem like an adventure. For a time anyway.


In the initial pages of his novel “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron deftly captures the loneliness and longing of a would-be writer in the person of the author’s fictional alter ego Stingo. Shortly after arriving in New York, Stingo finds a job at thinly fictionalized McGraw-Hill (where Styron worked) reviewing badly written submissions that will never see the light of day. He rents a dingy one-room Village apartment in the University Residence Club, whose guests were all men “mostly middle-aged or older Village drifters whose nest stop downward was skid row.”

Each night he returns home – he refers to it as a “cubicle” --with his daily ration of three warm bottles of Rheingold. (Refrigeration being more of a luxury in the postwar years when the novel is set.) He doesn’t have to look far for the life he’s yearning for. It’s right there outside his window, which reveals “an enchanted garden” adjoining a house fronting West 4th Street. The owners of the house and the garden are a dazzling couple -- “a youngish tweedy man whom I fantasized as a rising star at The New Yorker or Harper’s and his lively and astonishingly well-proportioned blond wife.” Stingo dubs them the Winston Hunnicutts, a name he thinks appropriate to their patrician good looks. Tormented by “unwanted solitude,” Stingo sits at the window, enviously observing the Hunnicutts hosting glamorous garden parties. “There in the golden dusk of Manhattan in an atmosphere of culture and unassertive affluence from which I knew I would forever be excluded, a soiree would be commencing…”

Life for Stingo begins looking up, however, when he befriends an older editor at McGraw-Hill, a failed writer who sees in Stingo’s youth the potential he once had but never realized, and takes him under his wing.

Most newcomers to the city, it is true, don’t know an established, well-connected muse or mentor who can show them the ropes, introduce them to the right people and usher them into an “enchanted garden” filled with famous and desirable people. There are exceptions; of course; some have worked as interns at law schools or brokerage houses the previous summer or know somebody who is now running a division of Warner Brothers they attended Groton or Boston Latin or Dalton with. Or else their father knows someone at CBS who knows someone at Random House who just happens to be looking for an assistant. In the best of circumstances you may find a patron who is plugged in and willing to launch you on your career.

I do not know whether I expected Tessa Vaughan to fulfill such a role exactly, certainly not at first, but for a time I thought she might provide me with an entrée into a world that I’d read and fantasized about but hadn’t  a clue how to penetrate.  Indeed, our first meeting at a coffee shop went better than I dared expect. Tessa was a savvy, intense, dark-haired woman for whom ideas mattered a great deal. She was one of those rare people who know how to listen, which is one of the reasons why she was such a good journalist. That is to say, she made you feel as if your words counted – a rarity in this day and age -- though whether she was actually interested in hearing about my modest accomplishments, or was simply eager to give me that impression. In any case, what could I say that would interest her? All of her friends were important people; they’d written novels and produced network TV shows and reported on events in dangerous corners of the world. Everybody she knew moved in rarefied circles; their books and plays were prominently reviewed in The Times and optioned for film rights. Somehow, between writing cogent, exhaustively researched pieces on the burning issues of the day for one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, she still found time to raise a small child and carry on a complicated dispute with her coop board.

At one point during our conversation Tessa brought up the name of a sharp, funny novelist she knew. Would I like to meet her? Of course, I said. Tessa told me that she’d arrange a dinner the following week.  I felt as though the doors to some exclusive club were being flung open for me and all that remained was for me to walk through them.

The promised dinner did in fact take place; that much I remember, but what was said at that dinner has long since slipped from memory and in any case, mattered less than the intoxication of simply being invited to a dinner party with people of such accomplishment. I allowed myself to think that I was accepted, quite oblivious of the fact that every strata of Manhattan society has its own rules and etiquette, with unfathomable hierarchies where many pitfalls await the naïve, the unwary and the presumptuous. My place at the table was far more provisional than I could have expected because I had no experience in this world.

I felt obligated to contribute to the discussion, to justify my presence so that I would be asked back. It’s possible that I talked too much or said the wrong thing, or committed some faux pas of which I was not remotely aware. 

There was, however, no sign then or for some time afterwards that I might have violated some unstated rule or simply worn out my welcome. On the contrary, Tessa even offered to submit a novella of mine to the fiction editor at her magazine, a gesture so flattering that I didn’t hold it against her for failing to follow up on it. (Needless to say, it was rejected without a word of explanation.)  She continued to extend invitations, too. .Would I like to meet friends of hers from Texas who would be in town the following week? Would I be interested in meeting an attractive young woman of her acquaintance? Would I be available for lunch next week? This was no problem. I was always available for lunch.

But it became increasingly difficult to get through to her to confirm that any of these events were on. My calls were seldom returned. And when I did succeed in reaching her some crisis always seemed to be brewing. “I can’t talk now,” she’d snap, “The stove just exploded.” Or her child was sick. Or she was flying out the door or was leaving for Paris – “call me in two weeks.” Once she promised to call back in five minutes. I waited, staring with mounting frustration at the silent phone. She never did call -- not that day or the next. But why would she keep asking me to call or suggest getting together if she didn’t mean it? I made excuses for her; she was busy, she had pressing deadlines to meet and family obligations and a baby and an exploding stove and that business with the coop board, a conflict that seemed as interminable as the Hundred Years War.

This went on for several months. One day I called her and for once she answered. I told her that I was going to London for a couple of weeks on vacation, and knowing that she’d been based as a correspondent there some years before, I was hoping she might suggest some people I could look up. Tessa assured me that she’d compile a list of names for me. She gave me every reason to believe that she would be able to put me in contact with a number of brilliant, creative and well-placed individuals, the kind of people she’d hung out with and reported on.

Two days before I was to leave for London, though, the list still hadn’t come. Tessa said she couldn’t understand what had happened to it. Her letter must have gone astray in the mail, she said. But not to worry, she would give me the names and numbers over the phone. Once again I had the sense that I was imposing on her even though as far as I could see, I was only taking her up on her offer. When she came back on the line she apologized, saying that she could only find one name because she’d been unable to find the address book with all the London numbers in it.

I was disappointed – and naturally suspicious. Why only one name and why was it the name of this particular friend? I phoned the woman when I got to London and then traveled some distance on the Underground to meet her at her flat. She turned out to be an older woman who wore her unhappiness openly and drank too much. Yes, she said, she’d met Tessa on occasion but the two hardly knew each other and hadn’t been in contact for ages.  I sensed that it was Tessa’s way of sending me a message. And the message could be summed up easily: Don’t bother me.

I saw Tessa only once afterwards; she was with her husband, descending the stairs at Lincoln Center after a screening at the New York Film Festival. It was an awkward encounter of careful nods and forced smiles. Not a word passed between us.

Which was worse? I wondered Never to have been invited to the garden party or being invited once and then not being asked back? Was it better to get your foot in the door before it slams in your face and leaves you with bruised toes? I’ve never been able to decide. I had been permitted a glimpse of a world that I had come to New York to find; if I wanted to get back to it then I realized that I would have to enter by another door and reach that door by traveling down a different path.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

When I first came to New York I carried a list of names and numbers of potential contacts -- friends of friends – that represented a kind of lifeline for someone with unrealistic ambitions and no connections. One of these friends of friends was a photographer whom I’ll call Kurt Korngold. He had achieved some degree of fame for photos he’d taken – one in particular -- when he was covering the Vietnamese War for a wire service.  It’s hard to recall in this era of Instagram, Flickr and Snapchat how much impact photos of that war had at the time. The iconic images that press photographers captured at great peril to themselves – the naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl set ablaze by napalm, the public execution of a Vietcong suspect by a South Vietnamese officer, the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk on a Saigon street --  seared  themselves into the minds of Americans. But by the time I met Kurt almost four years had passed since his return from Nam and he was no longer taking pictures; it was as if his camera represented a part of his life that he’d deliberately forsaken. His talent had become a burden. He had little money. (Rights to his photos belonged to the wire service.) He became a limo driver. His stories about the multimillionaires and celebrities he shuttled around town added up to a kind of Rabelaisian epic of licentiousness, drugs and debauchery. He drank. He would wake up in a strange apartment without knowing how he’d gotten there. Was that blood on the floor his? It can’t be said that he drank because of his experiences in the war; his drinking had started long before. His childhood had been tumultuous; he’d served time in a juvenile facility for trying to burn his house down. As a friend put it, he’d been at war for all of his life and Vietnam only represented a continuation of that war in a more exotic context.  Alcohol fueled his anger and prompted him to fly into rages. He’d often get obstreperous in bars and fall into insane arguments with bartenders.  “Do you know who I am? I’m one of the country’s most famous photographers?” Who were they to deny him another drink? But no one cared about the war anymore, much less about the people who chronicled it. And he was drunk so it didn’t matter who he was or what he’d done. And they threw him out.


Kurt sobered up. He began going to AA meetings. He realized that if he didn’t quit drinking he would be dead in six months.  As time went on we drifted apart. I later heard that he’d decided to become a stockbroker – a stockbroker!  It was as if he’d chosen a career that was as far removed from photography, from the life of an artist, as he could possibly get.  It was an act of renunciation that I don’t pretend to understand. Kurt might not have understood it either.  He was, unwittingly, following the path laid out a century before by Arthur Rimbaud who having revolutionized French poetry by the age of nineteen put down his pen and went on to become a slave trader in Abyssinia – an act of renunciation that sill puzzles biographers.

I hadn’t thought of Kurt in years when I saw his most famous photo again – splashed across the front of the arts section of a major daily. In the accompanying article the writer put him in the same pantheon of such great photographers of the war as Malcolm Browne, David Douglas Duncan, Eddie Adams and Horst Faas. But nowhere in the article could I discover any reference to what had become of Kurt. A Google search produced scores of entries for his photograph but practically none for the man who’d taken it.  It was as though as soon as Kurt had clicked the picture the trajectory of the image and its creator had followed divergent paths as one achieved immortality and the other faded away. Kurt had deliberately shunned the renown that could have been his for a life of obscurity and relative normalcy. In America where so many people strive to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame Kurt had done the exact opposite.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

In his review of David Gilbert’s acclaimed new novel “& Sons” in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, the reviewer Blake Bailey touched on a problem familiar to many writers: the infuriating tendency for relatively minor characters to steal the thunder from the protagonist. In this case the protagonist is a reclusive J.D. Salinger type, A.N. Dyer, who, having achieved astonishing success for a novel written in his twenties, has become reclusive and cranky, unable to repeat his earlier triumph. Unfortunately, Gilbert can’t quite bring him to life on the page, Bailey writes: “the reclusive, inscrutable artist is a dreary cliché…A. N. Dyer can scarcely speak except in elaborate platitudes about his vocation, and no amount of agonizing exposition can account for how such a witty and (mostly) benign young man turned into such a bore.” Ah, but there is another writer in the novel although he barely figures in the narrative.  He is a young man named Christopher Denslow and he makes his appearance at a party held in his honor for his “much anticipated first novel entitled ‘The Propagators.’” Christopher happily autographs copies of his novel while, in Bailey’s words, congratulating himself for “’remaining patient with those who were far less evolved, hoping this might excuse his other, faintly genocidal thoughts.’” Bailey then goes on to say: “At such times one can almost hear Gilbert’s sigh of relief as he abandons the mechanics of plot and lets himself have fun, pure fun, describing a believable, non-mythic writer like Denslow and his precocious opus…” Gilbert even includes an imaginary starred review from Publishers Weekly for Denslow’s debut novel, which describes the work as “’both a satire on postwar America and a thoughtful meditation on misplaced dreams, the pitfalls of conformity, of colonialism, the rise and fall of feminism. It is the human condition as seen through an ape.’” “Now that’s a book I want to read,” Bailey declares.  What he’s saying basically is that a cameo appearance by the upstart Denslow makes more of an impression than the cantankerous, pontificating A.N. Dyer. (I am going by Bailey’s review here; I haven’t read the novel myself.) This is not an uncommon dilemma. Writers can go mad trying to bring a protagonist to life, only to be caught unawares when a minor character, tossed in almost as an afterthought, turns out to be such a vivid presence that he shows up the characters the novel is supposed to be about. I think one reason for this is that the protagonist is forced to carry the burden of the plot – a huge responsibility – and so he doesn’t have the freedom to behave foolishly, to run amok, to do as he pleases. You don’t have to be a writer to know what it’s like: You’re under a lot of pressure, everyone is depending on you to get something right; you’re so conscious of not failing that you almost invariably slip up, you take your eye off the ball, you mess up the assignment, you miss the turn in the road. But if you’re relaxed, if you know that not so much is riding on your actions, or you simply don’t give a damn, you do OK or not, and so what? If you miss you try again. Denslow is free to enjoy himself and hawk his new novel while poor A.N. Dyer is condemned to nurturing regrets over his fading career and irritating his fictional family and his real-life readers. Even a genius like Shakespeare must have had trouble keeping Falstaff in line when he wanted his audiences to pay attention to Henry V. Oh, sure, young Prince Hal could give a mean speech to his soldiers before they battled the French in the Battle of Agincourt but Falstaff, brash, overweight, and inebriated Falstaff, is the guy you want to hang out with.  


Scientists in the UK and the Netherlands have just demonstrated technology that one day might preserve data for up to a million years. The medium is a glass ‘memory crystal,’ a storage technique that uses a laser to alter the optical properties of fused quartz. The scientists say that such a memory crystal could have the capacity to store 360 terabytes of data – the equivalent of 75,000 DVDs. But of course, while such an advanced technology solves one problem (keeping information secure for eons), it raises another, possibly even dicier one: in a million years will anyone (assuming humans are still around) be able to retrieve the information and if they do (whoever ‘they’ are), will they be able to understand it? Several years ago a similar problem arose when Yucca Mountain in Nevada was considered as a possible storage site for radioactive waste (plans have been delayed because of vehement opposition to the idea). Scientists believed that the waste could be stored safely for ten thousand years, but how, they wondered, would they be able to caution people (again assuming that there will be people) about the potential danger of contamination? In ten thousand years – or five or three or one thousand – anyone who still calls Earth his or her home might not be able to comprehend any language now in use. So scientists debated whether some kind of sign or image could be devised that would carry a warning across the centuries. There was, as far as I know, no agreement about what such a sign would consist of. NASA scientists grappled with a similar dilemma on a cosmic scale when in 1977 the Voyager 1 spacecraft was ready to be launched. In the unlikely event that Voyager 1 was ever intercepted by extraterrestrials, scientists felt that they should pack it with artifacts that would represent the best of human civilization. (No photos of genocide victims or films of Congressional debates.) So they put on board an assortment of images, a tutorial about the nature of the solar system and the planets, a description of fundamental mathematical and physical laws, as well as an explanation of DNA, some basics about human anatomy and reproduction along with lots of illustrations of animals, insects, plants and landscapes. There was also a depiction of a naked man and woman so that the little green men would know what they’re up against should they consider an invasion of our planet. To give the curious aliens a deeper understanding of our culture the scientists also included a selection of music ranging from Beethoven and Stravinsky to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry. Now more than 11 billion miles from Earth, the spacecraft has recently entered a kind of border region – called the heliosheath – separating our solar system from interstellar space.  So far, though, there’s no indication that aliens, if they’re out there, have taken any interest in the Voyager as it hurtles inexorably into outer space. And what if the aliens do get hold of the contents of the Voyager and can’t make heads or tails out of it?  I suspect that we’ll never know because at some point the spacecraft will lose its ability to communicate with us down here on Earth.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

You are not in the present. This sounds like the admonition of a cranky guru, but it is – literally – true. The present always escapes us because we aren’t quick enough to grasp it. It’s like a tiny ball of mercury always rolling away from us just out of our reach. That is because our senses aren’t designed to apprehend reality at the precise instant that reality (however defined) actually happens. For instance, when you look at an object or someone’s face you are seeing that object or that face in the past. Admittedly, it’s not very far back in the past – a fraction of a second, but all the same what you are registering in your brain is not what is happening exactly now. (The light transmitting the image has to travel a distance to reach your retinas, after all, and then the brain has to process the information – and that takes time.) So what is now exactly? And how can it be measured? Or can it be? Well, it turns out, that there is another, more obscure measurement of time called the attosecond.  One hundred attoseconds is to one second as a second is to 300 million years, which should give you some idea about just how thinly sliced you can carve up a second. While light can zoom around the world seven and a half times in a single second, light can barely make it from one end of a molecule to another in a single attosecond. Scientists can’t even measure a single attosecond; the shortest interval of time that it is possible to measure is12 attoseconds. But if you were capable of perceiving life in attoseconds you wouldn’t be able to watch a movie or a TV show because it would appear to you as a series of still frames. It would be like watching a lugubriously slow slide show – not very entertaining. But we would be able to see a flash of light exactly when it occurred; we would be able, finally, to be here in the now – exactly now – but think of how bored and impatient we would be waiting for everyone – and everything – else to catch up. 

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

Two items in the news recently caused me to think about seconds – that is the interval of time to which we usually give so little thought. The first was the announcement that scientists have succeeded in coming up with an even more precise way of demarcating the second than the one that is being currently used. I’d bet that you were perfectly satisfied the way things stand -- or move – with the second, and didn’t think that it was necessary to find a new way of determining its passage. Some of you may recall that the second has been calculated according to an atomic clock, specifically the frequency of the vibration of extremely cold cesium atoms. Once these frigid atoms are blasted with microwaves they vibrate at a frequency of 9,192,631,770 Hz – and that translates to a single second. But apparently that isn’t good enough for scientists. Now they are developing new optical atomic clocks using laser light (which because it has a much higher frequency is 100 times more precise). The new optical lattice clock, as it’s known, will be three times more accurate than an atomic clock that’s based on laggard cesium atoms, so accurate that it will lose only one second every 300 million years. This isn’t a theoretical matter since technology like GPS depends on the accuracy of the clock; an error of one nanosecond, or a billionth of a second, would mean the location pinpointed by the GPS is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) off. Figuring out where you’re supposed to be isn’t the only thing that is contingent on making sure that those seconds are accurately calculated. There’s a lot of money to be made – or lost – in the blink of an eye or tick and tock of a clock, too. Which brings me to the second item. A couple of weeks ago Thomson Reuters announced that under pressure it was temporarily suspending an arrangement with a select group of clients that allowed them to receive the release of biweekly University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index two seconds before other clients. (They get the data five minutes before the public does – an eternity on Wall Street.)  For those two seconds extra, privileged investors have to pay $6000, but it can be well worth it: high frequency programs can trade up to 200,000 shares within the first 10 milliseconds of that two second window. Think of it: you still have all those milliseconds remaining. You can make a small fortune in less time than it takes to yawn or sip your coffee. The New York attorney general demanded that Reuters Thompson put a stop to the practice because of the unfair advantage it gave to the clients, claiming that heads up gave them a chance to effectively game the system. When I first heard that old saying – “time is money” – I didn’t realize just how much money they were talking about or how much – or little -- time.



In the primeval days of the PC and the web – that would be the Eighties and Nineties -- artists became just as enamored with digital technology as techies did, seeing in the new media the potential to expand old forms in new ways and the capacity to invent art that couldn’t have been conceived of, let alone realized, before – all well and good except that the new media has proven even more ephemeral than more traditional works that made use of paint, canvas, wood, stone and metal. Sooner or later all artistic creations do deteriorate although it usually takes several decades or centuries for a patina to form, paint to fade, or metal to rust and corrode. It is seldom that art – traditional art anyway – regardless of when it was made or by whom -- to become obsolete. But that is exactly what’s happening to work generated on computers and that’s turning out to be a vexing problem (philosophical as well as practical) for museums that have acquired computerized art.



If a work is changed or simply ceases to function because the technology used to produce it has been superseded is it the restorer’s job to reverse engineer it, return it to the condition it was in when the artist created it? The Whitney Museum recently had to grapple with just such a dilemma when a piece in their collection called “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence,” created by the artist Douglas Davis on the Internet between 1995 and 2000, stopped ‘working.’ As its title suggests, “Sentence” was an interactive collaboration which ultimately attracted the contributions of 200,000 people around the world. But the software used to produce the work has long become obsolete with the result that the piece crashed. ‘Sentence’ no longer functioned as intended. The antiquated codes and the links were out of date. “There was endlessly scrolling and seemingly indecipherable text in a format that had long ago ceased being cutting edge,” reports Melna Ryzik writing in The New York Times. “But in trying to restore the Davis work, which was finally debugged and reposted at the end of May, the Whitney encountered what many exhibitors, collectors and artists are also discovering: the 1s and 0s of digital art degrade far more rapidly than traditional visual art does, and the demands of upkeep are much higher.” The museum’s curators had to decide whether if they updated the software they would be changing the artwork, undermining its integrity. The answer would be obvious if you were dealing with, say, a portrait by Leonardo; it’s one thing to clean a canvas and retouch it to restore its true colors, but quite another to repaint it in an attempt to duplicate the original pigments. The Whitney’s dilemma, Ryzik reports, is hardly unique. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Museum in Paris are only a few of the museums that have been collecting digital art. “We’re working on constantly shifting grounds,” said Rudolf Frieling, a curator of media arts at the San Francisco MOMA, “Whatever hardware, platform or device we’re using is not going to be there tomorrow.” In the case of “Sentence,” the Whitney hit upon a Solomonic solution: it decided to present the work in both its original and updated, debugged forms. But what happens in twenty or fifty years from now when the obsolete technology can no longer be recovered or made to work. Would that mean that works rendered on computers at the end of the 20th Century would simply cease to function and turn into lifeless relics?

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

Many years ago I happened to visit Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The center of the city was dominated by monolithic towers, soulless Stalinist edifices meant to intimidate the civilians scurrying about in vast inhospitable plazas like figures in one of DeChirico’s paranoia-inducing paintings – nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  Some numbers are like that; they seem almost designed to put you in your place and what a small place it is, smaller than you ever imagined. The numbers are impossible (unless you’re a mathematician or cosmologist anyway) to wrap your mind around. They are so staggeringly large (indeed, many of them are larger than large insofar as they have no limit) that in the face of them we feel diminished, reduced in importance, that it’s almost impossible to reconcile our everyday world with the worlds symbolically represented by such numbers (whether they exist on a macro or microscopic scale).  Not long ago, at a neighborhood restaurant, I met a lawyer from Rochester, NY who admitted that his true passion is mathematics. He pointed out that there are several ‘infinities,’ which in itself is a troubling notion since most of us wouldn’t be able to figure out what one infinity would be like, let alone a multitude of them. But there are practical aspects to this infinity business, said the mathematician-turned-lawyer (presumably for financial reasons – another type of mathematical consideration.) 



Let me see if I got this right: The set of prime numbers, for instance, is infinite because even a supercomputer, crunching numbers now into…well, infinity, would never reach the end of possible prime numbers because no matter which prime number (those are the numbers that can be divided by themselves and 1) you can come up with there will always be another prime number lurking in the wings waiting to show that number up. On the other hand, there’s another type of infinity – think of the number of divisions that are possible between zero and one. You can’t. Because no matter how minute the fraction you can divide that number into you can still divide that result again…ad infinitum. (You might recall Zeno’s paradox about the race between the hare and the tortoise, the idea being that if you go half the distance and halve it again and halve that distance again you would never reach the finish line, but of course, runners – and hares and tortoises, too, if they can be steered in the right direction – do in fact get to the finish line. Calculus was designed to resolve this paradox (among other things), which it did by essentially saying that at some point the distance between you and your goal is so infinitesimal that it doesn’t count so we’ll just forget it.)  That type of infinity, the lawyer asserted, is even more ‘infinite’ than the infinity of prime numbers.  Since I barely scraped by in high school algebra I am in no position to weigh in on this, but the concept of infinities outdoing one another in the ‘Infinity of Infinities’ contest is the kind of thing that could keep you up at nights or at the very least give you a bad headache.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

About a month ago I attended a panel about multiverses – the theory, widely debated and accepted by many (but by no means all) physicists that many universes (maybe an infinite number of them) exist side by side, only we can’t gain access to them. If multiverses exist, some of them may have preceded ours, giving rise to speculation that our universe sprang from the cosmic debris of a previous universe like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. There no evidence that other universes do exist and there is no good reason to think that scientists will ever be able to uncover such evidence. But then the absence of evidence is no proof of absence. I gather that there are some theoretical grounds for postulating multiverses. If you follow the logic of these physicists the idea of multiverses raises the possibility that there is someone identical to you living in a universe similar to this one, doing things that you considered doing, for example, but never got around to doing or were too afraid (or too wise) to do – that is to say, the roads not taken in this universe might be taken in other universes. If, after all, you have an infinity of universes every possible scenario and outcome can be realized kind of like thousands of monkeys pounding away at typewriters. By chance one of those monkeys may come up with something that seems to make sense.

At the same panel held in connection with the World Science Festival in New York City in May a physicist mentioned that the sum total of information contained in the universe – that is our universe, the one that came into existence about 14 billion years ago – is 10 to the 129th – that is 129 zeros. (10 to the 2nd power is 100 so you can begin to appreciate just how very big that number is, but it still has a limit.) This universe, our home, then is not infinite. That is, in some way, consoling; it is also frightening. The way the universe is going – and it is going very fast – at some point in the distant future the stars and the galaxies will hurtle away from one another, emptying space of matter, leaving behind a cold void in its place. The universe will become a very lonely place. And then it will disappear, perhaps as a prelude to the birth of yet another universe billions and billions of years from now.

AuthorLeslie Horvitz

The National Security Agency, which seems to have been in the news lately, is opening an enormous new facility in Utah. (The public is not invited to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.) According to reports, this facility will have the capacity to accommodate the equivalent of five quadrillion pages of data. That’s a hell of a lot of data. But I suspect that no facility, no matter how large, is equipped to store all the data that is now being churned out. Just to take one example, five quintillion bytes of data (one byte being equivalent to one letter of text) is generated every two days throughout the world, which researchers at the University of California Berkeley estimate is about equal to all the conversations that humans have had, ever.



NSA and other security agents rely on computers using a variety of algorithms (some of them designed to search for key words like ‘terrorism’) to find the hoped-for needles in the ever expanding haystack. But I suspect that technology is incapable of keeping up. The data threatens to become indigestible. As soon as you bring humans into the equation – and eventually you need analysts to assess the credibility of the information and determine whether it is actionable or not – you run the risk of errors, bad judgment and bias. And it takes time – lots of time. So analysts couldn’t get to them all; instead they put aside what used to be called “bit buckets” in the industry —electronic bits that someday would have to be sorted out…by someone. According to James Lewis, a cyberexpert quoted in The New York Times, “They park stuff in storage in the hopes that they will eventually have time to get to it,” although he admitted that “most of it sits and is never looked at by anyone.” As another expert put it: “This means that if you can’t desalinate all the seawater at once, you get to hold on to the ocean until you figure it out.” 



One of the few writers who really understood this phenomenon predated the advent of the desktop computer and the Internet. I am referring to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine poet and short story writer. Here is how his short story, “The Library of Babel,” starts out:  “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between … In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of its hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.” He could almost be describing the Web.


The Library, he goes on to say, exists for all eternity whereas man is “the imperfect librarian” of a universe that “can only be the work of a god.” Over the centuries explorers of The Library (no one has ever reached its limits) believe that they have discovered the rules by which it operates: “all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet.” Moreover, there do not appear to be any two books that are identical to any other.  Two “incontrovertible premises” follow from these rules: the Library is total and… its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite)… including “the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages…”


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When people realized that the Library contained all books, “the first impression was one of extravagant happiness” because they “felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon.” The universe now made sense.



This hope inspired the belief that it would be possible to unravel the fundamental mysteries of human life – “the origin of the Library and of time” – but as the years wore on, the investigators and philosophers were unable to find the hoped for solutions. Disillusionment set in. “Obviously, no one expects to discover anything” – a lesson that the NSA might want to take to heart. Hope was followed by “an excessive depression,” and yet people still couldn’t escape the feeling that they were missing something important, that the “precious books” that would reveal the truth they were seeking must exist on some shelf in some hexagon. Yet it could never be found because even if it existed, how was one to find it? But the unnamed narrator suggests that there’s a way out of this dilemma. Those people who imagine The Library to be “without limit” have forgotten that the “possible number of books does have such a limit.” The Library, he goes on, is unlimited but it is also cyclical. “If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)” – not one universe then, but many, in other words, a multiverse.